Jimmy Arias has come back to his future. In 1978, when he was 13, Arias was one of the first players to join coach Nick Bollettieri’s fledgling tennis academy at the Colony Beach and Tennis Resort. In April, Arias was named director of tennis instruction at IMG Academy, the renowned sports training facility that grew from the seeds Bollettieri sowed four decades ago.
Arias has forged an indelible mark on the game. At 15, he was the youngest player to receive a world ranking, and four years later he played in the finals of the U.S. Open. Sparked by an epiphany from his father, Arias patented the powerful “full whip” forehand stroke that changed the game. After retiring as a player, Arias joined ESPN and the Tennis Channel as a commentator.
Arias, 55, recently took a break from coaching to talk about self-esteem, young stardom, a long marriage and training champions.
“I’m 5 years old, living in Buffalo, New York. My dad, Antonio, started playing tennis with his friend. My job was to retrieve the balls for them because, like all new players, they hit a lot out of bounds. After a while, they said, ‘Let’s let Jimmy hit a few.’ Apparently, I was hitting it better than they were, and my dad immediately got excited and had me take a lesson.
“The style then was to take your racket straight back, turn sideways and point the follow through at your target. My dad didn’t know a lot about tennis, but he was an engineer who understood physics. When I came off the court after my lesson, he said, ‘That’s the stupidest thing I’ve heard in my life. How can you swing full speed and stop? That means you’re slowing down. Just let your arm relax and let it go.’ I started doing that and it basically became the modern game, everyone ripping ground strokes with spin as hard as they can with loose arms.
“When I was 8, I decided I was going to be No. 1 in the world. My dad would drop me off at the club and I would literally play all day, every day. I started playing tourneys when I was 6, playing 12-year-olds because they didn’t have 10-and-under competitions at that point. I wanted a trophy badly, but I never got one until I was 8, and I loved that trophy. I won that trophy. It meant a lot more to me than showing up and getting my butt kicked. Years later, when my daughter was on a soccer travel team, I objected when they wanted to give the players participation trophies. I got so much blowback from the parents that I told my daughter, ‘Look, you can take the trophy, but you have to throw it in the garbage can on the way out.’
“My dad influenced me more than anyone. He was the opposite of what people say to do now in terms of self-esteem. My dad told me I stunk every day. Everybody was better than me. I was terrible … blah, blah, blah. I was always trying to prove him wrong.
“The guy who owned the Colony, Murf Klauber, was from Buffalo, and when I was 13 some of his friends took me with them on a tennis vacation. They went up to the front desk and told Nick Bollettieri that this kid is really good, find him someone to play with. Nick gave me a lesson, got really excited and invited me to stay.
“I talked to the top 20 players in the nation that summer and I got about 10 to come [to the Colony], and Nick didn’t charge anyone. We had 10 or 12 great players in one place and the academy was born. The reason those kids followed me was that they knew my dad was very tough on me. They thought if my dad was letting me go to this Nick Bollettieri guy, he must be the greatest coach ever. And it paid off for Nick, even though he let us come for free, because getting the best young players in the world built his reputation for having the No. 1 training academy.
“A few years later, at 19, I made one big mistake that changed my career. I got mono and kept playing, which enlarged my spleen and caused liver problems. I was given three months of bed rest. I started going through all the scrapbooks my mother had put together, and I had two terrible thoughts: The first one was, if I never accomplish anything else in tennis, I’ve already done well. What you say happens. I never actually did anything else that I considered worthy, although I won some big matches. The second thought was even more disturbing: I didn’t want to be No. 1 in the world anymore. It was too famous for my taste. I wanted to be able to go to a movie and not have everyone know who I was.
“My wife Gina and I have been married 30 years. You take the vows, until death do us part, and I took that literally. Before we got married, I told Gina that we may hate each other at some point, but, even if we do, we’re not allowed to get divorced, so whatever problems you have with me, tell me, let’s talk them out. It’s worked out great. She’s still my best friend.
“As a coach, I deal with each kid individually. Everybody responds differently to ways of motivation, and I have to figure out the best way for each. I’m actually pretty good at it. I’m trying to teach these players how to win. Too much in academies has been about strokes, techniques, production. Kids don’t play enough competitive matches, so they don’t know the best style for their body type and athleticism. So, if you’re big and slow, you’d better be hitting the ball huge, be aggressive, be in control of the point. Playing to your strengths is crucial.”