Remember Anwar Congo, the aging mass-murderer profiled in Joshua Oppenheimer’s “The Act of Killing?” Well, imagine if that guy had been born in the United States instead of Indonesia, and had become a children’s tennis coach instead of the genocidal leader of a North Sumatran death squad, and you’ll have a pretty good idea of who Nick Bollettieri is and what he’s all about.
Of course, that’s not at all to suggest that these men are equally evil — one slaughtered untold numbers of innocent people, the other just ruined Andre Agassi’s chances of winning the 1989 French Open — but rather to say that both of them personify the same type of narcissistic madness. It’s not a rare condition; we all know people like them: people who dehumanize the rest of us as a defense mechanism. People who pretend that the past can’t hurt them. People who bend the truth in order to protect themselves from having to see it in full. Some of them are just more ambitious than others.
Bollettieri, the star of “Manda Bala” director Jason Kohn’s thin but entertaining (and cleverly titled) new documentary, spends the vast majority of “Love Means Zero” sitting on a chair in front of some dilapidated tennis courts and washing his hands of all the heartache he’s caused. “If you asked me right now to give the name of my eight wives” he boasts, “I couldn’t do it.” That is, uh, quite the declaration. It’s one of the first things we hear Bollettieri say, and Kohn’s film gives us no reason not to take the octogenarian at his word.
Bollettieri, who waves his hands around like he’s swatting ground strokes, punctuates every sentence with “baby,” and probably still asks people to call him “coach,” is nothing if not a raconteur; there’s a lot of Robert Evans in this guy. He complains about being interviewed for 14 hours (which Kohn has trimmed down to 89 minutes with some fat to spare), but it’s obvious that he loves talking about his glory days. History is all Bollettieri has left, and he loves to be the one who who writes it.
Most of Bollettieri’s history is tied to one player: Andre Agassi. “Love Means Zero” starts with Kohn standing off-camera and saying that Agassi refused to participate in the film, and we soon understand why. Tennis’ ultimate bad boy, Agassi moved to Florida and enrolled in the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy when he was just a teenager. He was one of the first to learn that Bollettieri ran the institute like a minimum-security prison; recruiting the most talented kids he could find and then granting the best of them full scholarships (in exchange for a percentage of their glory), Bollettieri didn’t teach his students how to unlock their inner champion so much as he so much as he destroyed every other part of their themselves until a lust for victory was all they had left. He raised them the same way that “Skyfall” villain Raoul Silva bred rats, training them to eat each other alive. He made Agassi believe they shared a bond that was bigger than tennis, a bond that would last forever.
Needless to say, it didn’t. It was never going to (although it’s easy to appreciate why a teenager might not be able to see that at the time). Still, while we all know that this story ends in strain, Kohn makes sure that we enjoy the ride. Even tennis neophytes are likely to get sucked into the footage of Agassi’s old matches; it’s suspenseful stuff unto itself, and all the more engaging with Bollettieri’s running commentary.
Best of all are the star player’s matches against his coach’s other favorite son, Jim Courier. The Salieri to Agassi’s Mozart, the two young men on some of the biggest stages in all of sports and battled each other in primetime for Bollettieri’s love — it’s as riveting as it is hard to watch. Bollettieri, of course, refuses to admit any regrets. He talks about the players like they’re privately owned works of art (“my Venus, my Serena…”), and he’s only interested in collecting most valuable of them all.
The trouble with making a movie about someone like him is that it takes about three seconds to understands everything there is to know about what makes him tick. Monsters are seldom very complicated, and there’s only so many ways you can learn how this one has suppressed his conscience. All of the players featured here are more interesting than the man who trained them, and it’s clear that Bollettieri has only agreed to do the movie because he’s making a last-ditch attempt at cementing some kind of legacy.
As a piece of tennis lore, “Love Means Zero” is absolutely vital. As a character study about a professional tyrant, it’s almost as frail and leathery as Bollettieri himself. Kohn eventually engineers a moment of reckoning for his subject, much like the one Oppenheimer created for Anwar Congo at the end of “The Act Killing.” The difference is that one of these men is genuinely horrifying, and the other just wasted his life thinking that he had to be.
“Love Means Zero” premiered at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival. It will air on Showtime in 2018.