Tennis great Wilander relishes new role as teacher

The young boy cavorting around the tennis court, giving advice, laughing while picking up hundreds of tennis balls, clearly was enjoying himself on one of those clear, blue-sky mornings in a Connecticut August.

You had to get closer to the lithe, agile body to see that attached to it was the craggy face of experience smiling from underneath the bill of a cap.

For the last five years, Mats Wilander, seven-time Grand Slam singles winner and, with Joakim Nystrom, one-time Grand Slam doubles winner, had arrived at the Four Seasons Racquet Club in Wilton last Wednesday.

His is not quite like any other arrival, however; not when he announces it by docking the signature, brightly painted, WOW (Wilander On Wheels) emblazoned, fully-equipped Recreational Vehicle in the Four Seasons’ parking lot.

For a third of his year, Wilander along with fellow teaching colleague and business partner Cameron Lickle, a former two-time captain and number-one ranked player at the U.S. Naval Academy, have taken their show on the road.

That show consists of clinics that feature sessions for up to eight players on a half-day, full-day or custom basis. Meals, instruction and play with the pros are included. And all of this is brought to you, so there are no lodging and travel costs.

It is not cheap. Wilander is running a business and his bona fides as well as his time are valuable. But the extras he and his crew bring to the table are beyond compare, not the least of which is the feeling that he has all the time in the world for you and you alone.

“It’s all about them,” says Wilander of his participants. “When you are a touring professional, everything is about you, about winning so that you can get to the next match. You can’t play the best guys if you don’t win. Now, I don’t have to win. I need to be on the road to give other clinics where we can teach, have some laughs, encourage people to learn while we enjoy them having a good time.”

Greg Moran, director of tennis at Four Seasons, looks forward to the WOW experience every year.

“Four Seasons is a family-run business,” says Moran, stepson of Stanley Matthews, who founded the operation some 40 years ago. “This is the fifth year we’ve had WOW here and it always has been special. It is rare to find a player of Mats Wilander’s stature who just loves to teach. He just loves it and he is very, very good at it.”

That’s high praise coming from an impeccable source. If there is one thing Four Seasons knows, it’s good teaching.

For the record, Wilander was very much a young phenom through most of the 1980s. At the time he won his first French Open in 1982, he was the youngest male (17 years, nine months) to ever win a Grand Slam singles title. Michael Chang and Boris Becker topped that record subsequently but Wilander began the parade.

Of his seven Grand Slam titles, three came at the French Open (1982, ’85,’88), three Australian (’83,’84, ’88) and one U.S. (‘88). He would finish the 1988 season as the number-one ranked tennis player in the world. His Grand Slam doubles title with Nystrom came at Wimbledon in 1986.

He is one of a handful of players who have won the Australian on both grass and hard-court surfaces. He also was part of and led perennially strong Swedish Davis Cup teams to victory in 1984, 1985 and 1987.

Growing up, Wilander played soccer, hockey and tennis but found that it was for him “easier to win in tennis.” Also, the achievements of fellow Swede Bjorn Borg were a major influence.

“Bjorn Borg made us all more serious about tennis,” he says.

“We had a tennis federation but it didn’t do anything for very young players until you were 13 and then it didn’t do much either. In Sweden, it was all about the clubs. In big cities like Stockholm, the clubs might have a pro but where I grew up the club I went to didn’t have one. My parents never paid for me to have a lesson. The learning just sort of happened. The best players in the club taught the younger ones.”

The young Swedish players did have Borg to look up to. And a lot of what he passed on had to do with attitude, according to Wilander.

“Winning the right way, that was what Borg was all about. Fairness, respect for your opponent, showing no emotion — these were what he practiced and demonstrated to us.”

Wilander got to use one of those precepts dramatically and early on in his career. On the road to his first Grand Slam in 1982, he watched the referee declare his opponent’s ball out when it was in. He was playing a semifinal match against Luis-Clerc at Roland Garros Stadium. It just happened to be match point. Wilander insisted that the call was incorrect and forced the point to be played again. He won and continued on to his title. Fair play won the day and his reputation for it as well.

Wilander downplays the episode.

“We were playing on a clay court and you could clearly see the mark the ball made outside the line. Luis-Clerc is 6’4” and an experienced player. I’m 5’9” and 17-years old. What am I supposed to do?

“Besides,” he continued wryly, “the call didn’t help for the future because on close balls everyone would look at me expecting a favorable call.”

While Borg’s code satisfies game face stoicism, Wilander’s behavior both then and now spices it all up with large doses of humor and giving. They have helped him survive and embrace both the good and the bad times that have been thrown his way, helping him to forge potential millstones into stepping stones.

He has had multiple “game changing” events occur in his life. In 1988 he and his wife Sonia missed a flight from London to New York for no apparent reason other than that they were late. The flight turned out to be the ill-fated Pan Am #103 destroyed by a bomb an hour out of Heathrow airport; 259 people perished. Following on the heels of this overwhelming ‘but for the Grace of God’ reality, Wilander found out his father was dying of cancer.

“Physically I played until 1997, but emotionally I stopped when my father died in 1989. Winning just wasn’t that important.”

Wilander left tennis, settling down in Greenwich to raise a family. His quest for stability took a hit when one of his boys was diagnosed with Epidermolysis Bullosa (EB) a rare, genetic disease that causes skin disorders that can be fatal. It was a mild case that left the Wilander family with some options, one of which was to move to another climate that could help reduce the disease’s harmful effects.

They moved out to the Sun Valley, Idaho, in 2003 and it has been the base of Wilander’s operations ever since.

“I spend a third of the year with WOW, another third playing the APTA Seniors/Masters and another third as a commentator,” he said. “I have so many angles to see and take part in the game. There is no consequence to winning now. You really appreciate the best players more as you get older. You get a chance to really see them.”

Wilander has a lot on his plate. He needs it given his high-energy consumption. He has made tennis his life in a good way, bringing all of its benefits to build and reciprocate what is good about life – family, community, helping, giving of oneself – just making things better in a world that seems to be taking a beating lately.

The Mats Wilander Foundation, dedicated to the cause of defeating EB, started in 2013. It has some words in its mission that Wilander lives: “Tennis through fair play, competition, respect for the game and one’s opponent, can help give a person the tools to become a better person, and in the end that is what life is all about… being a good person and contributing to the world.”

And fun doesn’t have to be eliminated in the process.