For years, Robert Elias wondered if he had a Martina Hingis-in-the-making in his tennis-playing daughter Tenille. At age 11, she had thrashed all comers and was ranked No. 1 among girls 16 and under on the family's native island of Trinidad. She was also running out of serious opponents. So seeking stiffer competition, Elias entered Tenille in a tournament in Mexico last summer.
Father and daughter were in for a shock. In a field of girls from the host country and around the Caribbean, Tenille hardly shined. In fact, she was dispatched in the second round. "We were quite embarrassed by her level of play compared to others," recalls Elias, a professional calypso singer who inherited a family building-supplies company. Elias was curious about where the girls who had pounded Tenille had been trained. "Each and every time the answer came back: a tennis academy in Florida," he says.
Eight months later, that is where you'll find 16-year-old Tenille, perfecting her backhand at the IMG Academies in Bradenton, Fla. She is one of 475 full-time students at the posh athletics camp, a pricey prep school for kids with big sports dreams--and parents with the big bucks to nurture them.
Sports camps are nothing new. As many as 7,500 kids trundle off to the three most attended baseball camps in Florida each year, mostly during spring break and summer vacation. Tennis schools are old hat, too. Former net champion Chris Evert, among others, runs one near her home in Boca Raton. But none is on the grand scale of the IMG Academies, property of sports marketing heavyweight International Management Group.
The sprawling 180-acre campus, about 30 miles south of Tampa, is home to five different sports schools: tennis, golf, soccer, baseball, and hockey. A sixth, basketball, bounces into action next fall. Academy students--most are in high school--attend classes 4 1/2 hours in the morning during a nine-month school year. About 120 go to an on-site school, the Pendleton School, that IMG started last fall. The rest attend two other local private schools. Except for homework and meals, the day is focused on becoming better jocks. Many workdays, the routine includes aerobics drills before breakfast, strength and conditioning workouts before dinner. And five days a week, there are intense afternoon workouts on the field, rink, or court.
"It's not for the faint of heart," notes academy soccer coach Tom Durkin. "A player needs a certain amount of character and discipline." And it doesn't hurt if the parents have a Swiss bank account. If you have to ask what it costs to train the IMG way, you probably can't afford it. The standard package--intensive coaching and training, plus a psychology program tailored to your child's sport--runs $20,000. School tuition for the budding athletes--the youngest is an 11-year-old tennis phenom from Holland--adds $10,000.
The investment can go higher. Robert Elias pays an extra $5,000 for Tenille's hitting sessions to be videotaped and sent to him in Trinidad. He is also treating his daughter to special sessions with a sports psychologist. "I have given her the full load to make sure she overcomes any stumbling blocks the first year," he says. Elias estimates Tenille's academy bill this year at $50,000. There's even a 14-year-old German boy whose family made a deal for three hours of personal instruction each day from academy founder Nick Bollettieri. His tuition, Bollettieri claims, now exceeds $100,000.
Many families choose to accompany their children to Bradenton, and some even buy homes nearby. Increasingly, that means making out yet another check to IMG. The first phase of Bollettieri Villas, a condominium complex on the academy grounds, is sold out; a second, where units will go for $250,000 to $300,000, is on the drawing board.
The young athletes who beat a path to the academy are a diverse group. This year's student body comes from 37 states and 51 countries. Athletic prowess is all over the map, too. The tennis program is murderously competitive at the top because of the 10 full scholarships IMG extends to the best players worldwide. Golf--students attend the David Leadbetter Golf Academy, also owned by IMG--also has its stars. Aree and Naree Wongluekiet, 13-year-old sisters from Thailand, already rank among the world's best amateurs, and Naree finished in the top 40 at last year's U.S. Open.
SCHOLARSHIP HUNT. But Open contenders are rare. As many as 30% won't play at a level above their high school teams, notes one academy coach. Some are just a few notches above klutz. That should come as no surprise given the academy's liberal admission policies. No one is denied a place for lacking athletic ability. In fact, the only real standard is whether parents can pay the freight.
Shoshana Krieger of Alpine, N.J., makes no bones about her reasons for enrolling: She saw it as a way to trim her figure. That, plus she had always wanted to give tennis a try. "I hadn't really played ever. I used to take a lesson once a week about two years ago," she says. But she's thrilled with her progress so far. "I came here and my game skyrocketed. I must be 100 times better than before," she bubbles.
Most academy students are more skilled than the novices and a notch below the elite players. For many, the ultimate goal is to nab a scholarship to a top-rated college program. Soccer student Ananda Erickson of Henderson, Nev., has narrowed her search to about a half-dozen schools. "She'll have the opportunity to go to a Division I college, where, if she had stayed in Nevada, she wouldn't," says her mom, Kathy. Her husband, Ranel, struck it rich with a business-to-business Internet venture, purchasepro.com, that went public in 1999.
When Bollettieri started his tennis academy in 1977, his charges had dreams of hitting it big in pro sports. An unabashed self-promoter who extols his school with religious fervor, Bollettieri started small. His first class had 20 full-time students and no place for any to sleep. Half his charges ended up living in his house, playing tennis by day and eating frozen pizzas each night. Bollettieri bought a run-down motel and turned it into a dormitory. In 1981, he raised $2 million to buy a tomato farm in Bradenton and began plans for a tennis academy. The success of players like Jimmy Arias and Carling Bassett, two of Bollettieri's first students to become successful pros, turned him into a tennis guru and the fledgling academy into a haven for talented young players. It attracted the interest of IMG, which paid $7 million for the academy in 1984 and kept it as a training ground for tennis players only. In 1994, IMG began adding other sports programs.
FEAR THE SUN? At age 69, Bollettieri is lean and as leathery brown as any horsehide billfold. He greets a reporter wearing only white tennis shorts--no shirt--and carrying a foil reflector to gather every last sun ray. "Fear the sun? Been in the sun all my life!" he exclaims. Then he stretches out in a chair and bakes some more. His school has nurtured many a net hero--Monica Seles, Venus and Serena Williams, Andre Agassi, and Anna Kournikova among them. Bollettieri's role is disputed--some players claim he hindered more than helped their careers, that he recruits better than he teaches. But clearly, he relishes his reputation for ferreting out young talent. "How do I do it? How does [Allen] Iverson go down the court like he did last night to beat L.A.?" he says of the talented basketball player. Bollettieri wags an index finger like a preacher in his pulpit and answers himself: "God gave me that talent."
Bollettieri still gives lessons to academy students and hammers away at the importance of healthy living: He famously lectures about cutting back on burgers and fries. And he is quick to brag about his world-class pupils. "Tommy Haas is over there. He's [ranked] about 17 in the world....I got two girls ranked No. 32 and 47 in world. Got the third-best junior in the world at 15....I got the best young Afro-American girl coming up. I got the world 12-and-under champion. And then I got a young Jewish girl from Holland who is off the walls."
Bollettieri constantly downplays what parents should expect from the camp. "The belief that the students here all end up as another Agassi, it's coming down," he says. "The academy has earned a reputation as a heckuva place to exchange cultures, to try to get physically and mentally fit--and also pretty damn good at the sport you try."
The ambience of the posh campus can send a different message, though. Tennis courts--45 outdoor, 8 indoor--stretch in every direction. A five-field soccer complex and twin-diamond baseball complex are due to open soon. IMG's fitness facilities are among the most sophisticated anywhere. Its International Performance Institute operates in a 30,000-square-foot building that looks like an open-air airplane hangar. Kids strap into bungee-cord-like belts to run through drills that build agility and muscle. IPI draws big-league stars as well. Baseball hotshots Derek Jeter and Nomar Garciaparra, both IMG clients, go through workouts during the off-season. So have basketball player Kobe Bryant and football quarterbacks Tim Couch and Cade McNown.
In fact, on any given day, academy students are likely to be lifting weights next to a sports hero they have only seen on ESPN. "You'll go in the weight room, and there will be a famous athlete sweating away. You're all friends," says 17-year-old Joel Canino of Syracuse, N.Y., whose soccer squad recently had a visit from Olympic gold medalist Michael Johnson.
Parents are just as impressionable. Having been sold on IMG's reputation and having paid the steep bill, many want to see results. Tensions mount between staff and parents, and inside families, when kids don't improve as rapidly as mom and dad hoped. "Every parent wants the best for their child. But we see many with the attitude: `I was a great hockey player. My kid has got to have those genes in him somewhere.' It's living vicariously through a child. Often, the parents don't recognize there's a problem until late," says Carey Benson, a counselor in the academy's sports psychology program who meets with troubled athletes.
Back in Trinidad, Robert Elias says he has no such expectations of his daughter. Whatever she makes of the experience in Bradenton is fine with him, though he would like to see her return to Trinidad eventually "to open a school of tennis, to pass on the experiences she has had to the younger ones." Tenille's ambitions, for now, are different. "My father has paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for me to be here," she says. "I want to pay him back and get a scholarship for college so he doesn't have to pay for college." That dream can wait, though. For now, it's back to the tennis court.
Corrections and Clarifications
"Reading, writing--and winning" (Sports Business, Apr. 2) on IMG Academies erred in saying Nomar Garciaparra is represented by International Management Group. In fact, he is represented by SFX.
By Mark Hyman in Bradenton, Fla.