Wilander wows area tennis players
The man who successfully steered the Winnebago into the tight Midtown Athletic Club parking lot, showing off his uncanny ability to flirt with painted lines and narrowly miss hitting them, does more than just drive the team vehicle.
He also will willingly spill blood, sweat and tears — or “bleed” on the court, as Cameron Lickle puts it — with Joe Accountant and Suzy Homemaker. He will drop consistently wicked drop shots, too.
To answer the query of the polite gentleman working on his laptop and the nice lady ordering lunch, the man sitting at a table in the cafeteria at Bannockburn's Midtown facility is Mats Wilander.
“My husband will know him,” she said.
Every tennis fan knows the name Mats Wilander, winner of seven Grand Slam singles championships, who's in seventh heaven these days with his “Wilander on Wheels” tour. “WOW” stopped in Chicago last week, with Wilander and former U.S. Naval Academy tennis team captain Lickle giving their 90-minute clinics (plus lunch) at Midtown in Bannockburn, Westmoreland Country Club in Wilmette and Salt Creek Club in Hinsdale.
“I used to look for weaknesses in my opponent and exploit them,” said Wilander, 46, who won his first of three French Open titles at 17 and finished 1988 ranked No. 1 in the world. “Now I look for weaknesses in the guy across the net and try to help him.”
For those who received the 90 minutes of high-energy instruction from the personable and straight-shooting Wilander and hit with the tennis legend, “WOW” was a wow experience.
“Loved it,” said a wide-smiling Todd Johnson, a teaching professional at the Midtown Athletic Club in Palatine. “Just watching the control of the hands of a player that's been No. 1 in the world was amazing.”
Equally impressive was Wilander's enthusiasm, sense of humor and involvement with his paying customers, whose first names he committed to memory during the session.
“He was so involved with the drills,” said Peter Rogus, a Hawthorn Woods resident and member at Midtown in Palatine. “He didn't sit on the sideline and just say, ‘OK, guys, go hit 'em and I'll critique you.' What made (the experience) was not only meeting him, but having him be as involved as he was in the drills — running for balls, picking up balls. It was fantastic.”
“It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to play with a champion of anything,” said Glencoe resident Michael Cohen, soaking up the experience while soaked in sweat. “They were very personable. (Wilander) is a personable pro. He's an everyday guy. It was great.”
“WOW” was spawned from a tennis fantasy camp that Wilander used to put on with fellow Swede and former pro player Mikael Pernfors. When their small group of campers from Las Vegas could no longer afford to make the trip to Vermont, Wilander offered to drive 12 hours from his Idaho home to Las Vegas. He hooked up with Lickle, who was working as a nuclear engineer for the Navy — “You wouldn't know it by my long hair and beard,” Lickle said with a laugh — and before long their fantasy on wheels was in motion.
“Airports and hotels and rental cars, it's very complicated,” Wilander said. “With the Winnebago, it's roughing it, but it's so much easier. You throw all your (gear) in and you drive to the next place.”
Despite his tennis accomplishments, which also include a stint as captain of Sweden's Davis Cup team, Wilander checks his ego at tennis club doors.
“These guys are successful traders, great guys,” Wilander said of a group of eight, several of whom work at the Chicago Board of Trade. “They finished college. I never even finished high school. So I get to hang out with people that are successful — not financially or materialistically, but they're happy people.”
They're happier having hit and laughed with a tennis legend.