‘Love Means Zero’ gives price of being a champion

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Ethan Hayes

As an athlete, you trust and respect your coach and in exchange, your coach gives you the tools and guidance from which you can become something greater than the sum of your parts.
Love Means Zero takes this message to heart as well as its double meaning regarding tennis as it examines one of its most controversial figures, Nick Bollettieri whose aggressive Italian vigor meets director Jason Kohn‘s combative approach in the first 10 minutes.
Kohn, whose documentary Manda Bala showed at T/F in 2007, uses Bollettieri’s unfiltered openness to lay the foundation for the film which becomes an encompassing portrait of the infamous tennis coach, showing the good, bad and ugly parts of his coaching and character.
The film showcases several of Bollettieri’s past athletes, all of which are renowned tennis champions:  Martin Blackman, Jim Courier, Boris Becker, Kathleen Horvath, and Carling Bassett.
Combined with great resolution and high-quality cinematography, the viewer is brought into the world of tennis.
These athletes and their experiences with Bollettieri are shared throughout the film with the purpose of contextualizing the attitude and culture of the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy. The way Bollettieri ran his academy and treated his students is told so reminiscently that there’s a bleed-through effect across the multiple decades conducted through these interviews making the viewer feel like a student at the tennis academy.  The way in which these interviews are told is an important element to their impact. The center frame style holds each interviewee accountable to their story by placing them as the focus and at the same time gives trust to the viewer that the speaker is being open, honest and vulnerable about their time with Bollettieri’s.
Most if not all, the athletes had a uniform theme in their unique stories of wanting the love and praise of Bollettieri, who many viewed as their second father or only father for that matter. The film very much shows the knee-jerk absurdity felt by the viewers at this thought but also builds a connection of empathy and understanding throughout the filmmaking viewers by the end wanting to pay the enlarged monetary fees just to get Bollettieri’s attention and praise.
In addition, there are also interviews with two of Bollettieri’s past assistant coaches Julio Moros, and Fritz Nau. Both Moros and Nau while not always seeing eye to eye with Bollettieri, believed his method did get results.
This being said, the athletes and assistant coaches all come to the similar conclusion of not regretting being with Bollettieri and would do it all over again if able. It puts the viewer in a sense of shock that is still felt after the end of the film and can only be quelled through another viewing.
The focal point and most interesting aspect of this documentary is not who’s in it but rather who isn’t. Out of all Bollettieri’s grand slam tennis success story athletes, the most important one is missing and that’s Andre Agassi. This documentary puts the relationship and the psychometric chemistry between Bollettieri’s and Agassi as a way of showing the more uncommon side of Bollettieri that’s hard-hitting but feels more genuine, sensitive, and real then the Bollettieri we see up to this point. The documentary in this sense shows the side of Bollettieri that his athletes fell in love with and wanted praise from. Through high level directing and plotting, this is when the audience can start to feel the patriarch figure characteristics and core part of Bollettieri.
That being said, Love Means Zero is more about tennis than anything else, at least from Bolletteri’s perspective. This film is all about double meaning and the underlying truths we all hold dear. The movie shows that for Bollettieri, it was never about tennis but rather how to inspire his most elite players to become their absolute best and finding that one in a million person who’s willing to go beyond his limits.
Love Means Zero is much a manifestation of Bollettieri. They both use tennis as a metaphor to project their message and feelings toward the idea that is the human spirit. The aggressive back and forth banter that is essential to Bollettieri’s Italian roots remarkably resembles the stroke to stroke battle action that occurs in a tennis match.
Bollettieri never won a tennis match, as one of his protégés notes, in his life, but he does know how to train a winner and can spot raw talent when he sees it.
Never a man without controversy, he was worth the trouble in the end. Why else would athletes like Becker and Horvath go through the hardships and struggle of being coached by Bollettieri? He created the best of the best through revolutionary methods; critiqued by many as over-the-top, Bollettieri’s tenacity and grit showed his athletes the title of being a winner was worth it. He had to be a man with an inflated ego; otherwise no one would listen to a man with no experience in a sport.
Did you see the show? What did you think? Does he go too far in the opposite direction of the participation trophy?