Crazy ‘Love’

Nick Bollettieri in Jason Kohn’s documentary “Love Means Zero.” Courtesy Showtime.
Jason Kohn’s documentary, “Love Means Zero,” centers on the impervious tennis coach Nick Bollettieri and his complex relationship with his most famous pupil, Andre Agassi.

People are complex creatures. They can be terrific at what they do — and make your life miserable while they’re doing it.

That wondrous, monstrous complexity is at the heart of Jason Kohn’s documentary, streaming on Showtime — “Love Means Zero.” It’s a terrific title for a film that is by turns infuriating, enlightening and heartbreaking. And it’s a great double entrendre:  Love means zero in tennis, but it also means nothing to an egotist whose lack of self-awareness (the two go hand in hand) proves tragic to all, not the least of whom is himself.

The egotist in question is Nick Bollettieri — who coached Monica Seles, Venus and Serena Williams, Boris Becker, Jim Courier and, perhaps most famously, Andre Agassi. When we meet him at the opening of Kohn’s 89-minute film, he is seated in a chair in the great seedy, humid outdoors talking to Kohn off-camera, wearing shorts and a polo shirt. His skin has the look of a well-oiled baseball glove, and he punctuates his sentences with the word “baby.” For 40 years, Bollettieri — who was born and raised in Pelham — has run a tennis academy/preparatory school (now part of International Management Group) that’s been described as “a minimum-security prison.” It’s in Bradenton, Florida, a state that’s known for its alligators. Always gracious and insightful with the press, including WAG, Bollettieri nonetheless has something of the gator about him — something watchful and predatory, as if he were ready to pounce on the next misplaced tennis stroke or opportunity. 

It would be easy to poke fun at or pass judgment on such a Damon Runyonesque character. But what makes Kohn’s film so devastating is that he does neither. Rather the self-described former chubby Long Island kid — who fell in love with the individuality of tennis as a fan and social player — locates Bollettieri’s tragic flaw in his seeming imperviousness, impassivity and opacity. (He claims in the documentary not to remember the names of his eight wives.)

It’s not merely the story of a man who failed to understand the pain he inflicted on others, Kohn says, but one of a man who for a long time failed to understand how he could be hurt by others as well.

“But he got there in the end,” Kohn says, referring to Bollettieri choking up as he reads a letter in which Agassi describes how he had been a father figure to him. By the time we get to that emotional high point, though, we’ve already been through the boot camp atmosphere of mostly eager-to-please, perspiring kids hitting endless balls and cleaning latrines as they’re manipulated by a coach who seems less Machiavellian than mercurial. He promoted then dropped Carling Bassett and Kathleen Horvath. He sat in Agassi’s box in his 1991 French Open final against Courier, even though Courier was also his student. Did Bollettieri deliberately motivate Courier to beat Agassi or merely back the wrong horse early on?

It certainly seemed the latter as Agassi — a punk kid turned prodigy by an abusive, violent father — kept losing in Slam finals to peers like Courier, Pete Sampras and Michael Chang. He finally broke through improbably on his least favorite surface, grass, at Wimbledon in 1992. By then, however, the intense father-son relationship that had developed between Bollettieri and Agassi had begun to change. A year later, Bollettieri ended it in true Nick fashion, letting Agassi know by mail but first revealing the split to USA Today. The breakup, Kohn says, was more complex than a mentor being eclipsed by a pupil who had become a supernova.

“Money is always the symbol of the power dynamic in a relationship,” Kohn says. Bollettieri thought he wasn’t being respected enough so he bolted. Or maybe the relationship-challenged coach preferred to be the leaver rather than the leavee.

But here’s the thing:  If, as 18th-century poet Alexander Pope wrote, “All partial evil is universal good,” then we have to admit that Bollettieri is a successful coach, a kind of perverse disciplinarian. “Nick Kyrgios needs Nick Bollettieri,” Kohn says of tennis’ reigning bad boy.

Though he looms large in the film, Agassi — who created the Andre Agassi Charitable Foundation and the Andre Agassi Preparatory School, a tuition-free charter school in Las Vegas for at-risk students — declined to be interviewed for it. It’s one of the reasons the film wound up at Showtime instead of at ESPN, which was interested in Agassi for its “ESPN Films:  30 for 30” series. 

“Love Means Zero” represents a 180-degree change in subject matter from Kohn’s first film, “Manda Bala (Send a Bullet)” — a tale of political corruption and violent crime in Brazil that won the Grand Jury and Cinematography Awards at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival. But the tennis documentary is certainly in Kohn’s court. While he didn’t make his middle school tennis team and music and movies would soon have greater claims on his affection, Kohn never lost his love for the game’s social aspect or its personalities.

“The appeal of tennis and other single sports is that you root for a person. There’s something in that person that you imagine your life to be.”

He grew up in the era of Agassi’s great rival, Sampras, whom he found closed off. “I couldn’t see anything in him as a person that would let me in. But as a child, I loved Boris Becker. I loved to see his emotion. They say Boris Becker was at his most vulnerable when he was angry, but I just thought he was being human.”

Kohn — whose next film is “Diamond, Silver & Gold,” about the origins of life and synthetic diamonds — still plays tennis on Los Angeles’ pristine public courts and attends the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, California.

But he acknowledges that it’s not the same as those early-round night matches at the US Open that he attended as a boy.

“It’s as close to a religious experience as I’ve ever had.”

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