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Mats Wilander Then & Now
By Jane Voigt

Jane Voigt Photo
Jane Voigt

May 23, 2010 -- Mats Wilander exploded on the ATP Tour in 1982, one year after compatriot Bjorn Borg suddenly retired. The slightly built 17-year-old Wilander entered that French Open unseeded and, to the shock of international sports, won the coveted Coupe des Mousquetaires.
 
Twenty-eight years later Mats Wilander is up to his eyeballs in a new business venture -- Wilander On Wheels -- a traveling tennis fantasy clinic where he teaches tennis to 4.0 players. It's not the only thing on the Swede's map.
 
So what does this newly fashioned businessman and three-time French Open Champion predict for the next two weeks in Paris?
 
"Roger Federer has a really good chance of repeating what he did last year," Mats said in earnest, as he sat in the lounge of the Junior Tennis Champions Center in College Park, Maryland, a couple hours before flying off to Paris where he will be Euro Sport's radio broadcast anchor at the 2010 French Open -- his fifth year on the microphone. "Federer's playing good enough. He's made one final on clay. He played a really close match with Nadal, but that really doesn't matter."
 
Best of three set tournaments, according to Wilander, don't mean much when predicting performance at a major -- especially a grinder such as Roland Garros. He says these matches don't meet the rigor of a half marathon, let alone a full out marathon of 26 miles, which the French most resembles.
 
"The only thing the men have to worry about is can I last four hours on clay," Mats said, his palms pressed together as he made his point about endurance. "Federer has figured out that he is fit enough. He has to worry about the guy who will keep the ball in play, and the big guy who hits the ball really hard."
 
On the bottom half stands the #2 seed and crowned King of Clay, Rafael Nadal, Federer's potential opponent in the final. Wilander says that Nadal would have to have a really bad draw and bad luck not to make it to the final. But that he, too, will have to watch out for big guys such as Robin Soderling.
 
"This is The French Open... maybe the most exciting tournament of the year. It's a fun tournament and a grinder. There are many variables. There can be really long matches, and it can be really cold or hot. More importantly, it's been five months since the last major. The winner of the French will be the favorite at Wimbledon. Whereas The French is completely wide open, except we know that Nadal is the favorite."
 
On the women's side, Wilander wonders if Justine Henin, maybe the greatest women's clay court player of all time, can start where she left off. He believes she can take the title, again, if she can tough it out mentally. He makes a firm point about the length of time women spend in matches compared to the men who play best-of-five sets.
 
"It's not a physical grind for the women," Mats said emphatically. "They get a day off between matches as do the men. But the men might have played a five-hour match and recover in a day. The women don't have to play five sets. It's all mental strength for the women."
 
At 46, Mats Wilander remains fit and trim. He seems enthusiastic about tennis, and is opinionated about player development.
 
Last November the Swede, who resides in Haley, Idaho, with his wife Sonya and their four children, reached beyond the aesthetic of tennis and shook hands with the business world as the founder of Wilander on Wheels -- or WOW, as the rotating logo depicts on the Wilander on Wheels website. "Let the tennis fantasy come to you."
 
And who's not to say that exchanging backhands with Mats Wilander wouldn't be a fantasy. A jittery sense grabs your gut, just to contemplate the possibility.
 
"I really like teaching tennis," he said, quite frankly, although his day-old beard this afternoon at the College Park USTA Regional Player Development Center doesn't match up to the required presentation a full-time teaching pro must adhere to.
 
Before hitting the road with WOW, Wilander coached Paul Henri-Mathieu, Tatiana Golovin, and arguably the toughest student: Marat Safin. None of those relationships endured. Wilander discovered that the 24/7 one-on-one reality was tough and not for him.
 
"It was fun, in a way," Wilander said. "But, it's not that easy to try to help someone who is that developed. Everyone is not willing to change a little bit and sacrifice what they have for something better, but perhaps doesn't make them win. So, it's tough to get the reward of helping somebody on tour."
 
Wilander couldn't release his unending energy, either. He said he needed to be on court to feel good about what he's doing for players.
 
"It's really fun to help people who are keen about their tennis," Mats said, referring to the clinics he and his partner Cameron Lickle produce. "And there are more areas to help people who are, let's say, a 4.0 player."
 
Mats admitted, too, that he can help average players more than most teaching pros can help them.
 
"It's so different for them to suddenly play tennis with me," he said, shifting back and forth in his seat as if searching for the best way to express his company while reining in his part in the clinic's one-and-a-half hour sessions. He has never been a grandiose man.
 
"It makes a big difference to people. It's like... WOW, I'm playing with someone who has won seven majors."
 
Wilander and Lickle, former #1 for the U. S. Naval Academy and ITF Circuit competitor, don't intend to pit themselves against local teaching pros. They are, rather, attempting to drive home those lessons teaching pros have taught students.
 
"When I say something, hopefully it's what the pro has been saying to the kids or to anyone. In general, I think I just reinforce what's already being said."
 
Wilander is motivated by the reactions from the folks in his clinics. He treats them all as equals and doesn't care what they do off the court. This attitude helps dissipate the shock participants initially try to conceal as they stare at Wilander across the net.
 
"People relax and let go. They have a good time. When they walk off they are genuine when they say it was great. That's the only fuel Cameron and I need, really. If you keep doing what you love to do in life, the result is not important."
 
Wilander and Lickle hope to perfect their business model and keep it running for another ten years, three to five months a year. The other months Wilander will commentate for Euro Sport at The Australian Open and The French Open, play exhibition matches, plus match up against one of his former rivals, such as Ivan Lendl or John McEnroe, on The Champions Tour.
 
And who knew Mats Wilander was an outdoorsman? Camping, he says, is another reason he ventured into the teaching business. Packing up the WOW Winnebago and heading down the road allows Wilander, Lickle and their photographer, Tim Burns, to sightsee across America.
 
"I love camping," Wilander said, happily. "I love the mindset of the people I meet camping. I see a lot of nice things I wouldn't see if I were in airplanes and renting cars."
 
Wilander's insistence that business and pleasure mix is another lesson that reverberates in his WOW clinics. He stresses footwork for better tennis. But any club player knows that quick feet mean change and better fitness. Therefore, fun and workouts must go hand-in-hand.
 
But packing up a 12-year-old for a far-away tennis academy is not Wilander's notion of good player development. He isn't opposed to kids playing tennis for hours at a time. But if there's a coach on court he says it does more damage than good.
 
"I really don't believe in taking kids away from their safety zones, which is their home and their parents. To them, the unconditional love from their parents comes with an attachment... the parents hope the child can make it. And that's pressure you don't ever want to put on a kid."
 
Wilander believes that the few who make it as a professional or to a coveted collegiate Division I spot arrive there because of talent and passion for the sport. He says these girls or boys would have ascended the heights having had one hour of practice a day, let alone four hours on court with a coach barking in their ears.
 
"There's something wrong with the thought that what happens with your learning curve if you don't increase your practice time."
 
Growing up in the winter months of a twilight Sweden, Wilander only practiced for forty-fives minutes three times a week. He and his friends would watch the seconds tick down until they ran on their court. Every ball struck had meaning. No time was wasted. He was focused.
 
Wilander's concentration hasn't blinked since he was the number one player in the world in 1988. He demonstrates his beliefs to his students as simply as he did back then to crowds of fans. His feet lead his students down a path of no-nonsense tennis, which he knows takes time but can be traveled joyfully.
 
It's like taking the wheel of his Winnebago and turning up one of his favorite Bob Dylan tunes. The road bumps are out there, but you have to move forward. Keep your eyes on the road and watch out. The WOW mobile might end up parked in your club's lot the next time you look.
 


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