For international tennis star and seven-time Grand Slam title winner Mats Wilander, the game of tennis is about sound. And he has the expertise to be an authority on the subject. Wilander, who became a Valley local after moving his family to Idaho from Connecticut, burst on the world tennis stage as an unseeded 17-year-old player, winning the 1982 French Open and becoming the youngest Grand Slam male singles champion on record at the time. He won his fifth Grand Slam title at the age of 20, the youngest man in history to have achieved that feat, and became No. 1 in the world in 1988. He is also one of only a few men to have won Grand Slam singles titles on grass, clay and hard courts—joining the likes of Jimmy Connors, Andre Agassi, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer in that distinction.
In fact, it was the sound of tennis, or more specifically, the sound of the ball that drew Wilander to meet Cameron Lickle, the man who would become his business partner in Wilander On Wheels (W.O.W.), a revolutionary mobile tennis concept that involves Wilander, a Winnebago and an effort to bring the fantasy tennis experience to players at clubs and courts all over the country at a more affordable price.
When Wilander isn’t touring around the U.S. with W.O.W. or commentating on TV and blogging for Eurosport at Wimbledon and the Opens, he can be found enjoying the peace and quiet of his ranch in Idaho with his wife of 26 years, Sonya, and their four children. We sat down with the international tennis star and Sun Valley local on a sunny afternoon in July to find out just what drives a seven-time world champion and International Tennis Hall of Famer, on and off the court.
SVM: How did you get started in the game of tennis?
MW: My dad started playing when he was in his mid-40s. He had watched the Davis Cup on TV and the very next day he went out and turned the parking lot at the local factory into a tennis court and started playing. Eventually he gave me a racket and I started playing, too. Ice hockey and soccer were what you played in Sweden. They still are. So my tennis career was really a series of small coincidences. I had been playing small tournaments and really enjoying it. And when I was 13 we moved away from the town where I grew up. That meant we moved away from my ice hockey team and soccer team, and I was pretty shy and couldn’t imagine joining another team at that point in my life. So I just focused more on the tennis.
SVM: What originally brought you to Sun Valley?
MW: We first came here in the late-’90s for Christmas vacation with some friends who have a house in Smiley Creek. We were living in Greenwich, Connecticut, at the time, which used to be more rural but just became more and more manicured as Wall Street moved further and further out. Finally, in 1997, we bought property and built a house here. I grew up in Växjö, a small town in the south of Sweden with 500 people. It was great for kids in a small town. That’s not why we moved here, but it’s nice. We moved here for the outdoors, nature, sports. We ski, play hockey.
SVM: What is the most important element of your life here in Sun Valley? What could you not live without?
MW: The most important thing about living out here is that in nearly 23.5 hours out of each day, there is absolutely no noise pollution. Nothing. You can’t hear a manmade noise. It’s just the sound of the wind and the sound of the river and whatever comes rolling in … thunder maybe. It is so relaxing. It takes me right out of my daily routine while I’m on the road. It’s more than the views. It’s the sound that is not there. The sound of nature.
SVM: What is your favorite Sun Valley: a) sound b) taste c) touch?
MW: Sound: East Fork River and Cove Creek, which I can hear from our bedroom window. I’m not sure if it’s the bed or the company, but it’s my favorite.
Taste: That clean smell of nature; simple and pure.
Touch: Would have to be the temperature. The weather is amazing here. Some say weather isn’t that important. Yes it is. I have traveled all over the world and the weather here is the best in the world.
SVM: What local WRV charity do you feel most strongly about? And why?
MW: There are so many that we all support locally: The Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation, Advocates, YMCA or Firefighter’s Ball. But my real passion has been DEBRA of America, which is working to raise awareness for the genetic disease EB [Epidermal Bulluyosa]. My son has a mild form of the disease and our daughter is a carrier as well. But I’m not doing it for them. I’m doing it for all the others that have this horrible disease. I have also launched the MW (Mats Wilander) Foundation as a way to help raise awareness and offer support for the families with children affected by EB. These families need financial support for the treatments that are available.
SVM: What was the idea behind Wilander On Wheels (W.O.W.)?
MW: The idea started four or five years ago when I was participating at one of these tennis fantasy camps, which are usually four-day events in Hawaii or Arizona or Burlington or wherever, where me and a couple of other tennis pros play tennis with you for four hours a day. I am such a lover of tennis that I often would go out and play in the evenings with participants, many of whom felt the same way. They just wanted to play. Well, I got stuck in an airport with one of the participants while trying to get to one of these events. He happened to be a weatherman in Las Vegas, which they say is the easiest job in the world. But we were stuck in Detroit and we were missing a whole day and we thought, “This is B.S. because we aren’t playing tennis, we’re sitting in Detroit.” And, on top of it, my friend, the Las Vegas weatherman, was thinking, “Hey, this is getting really expensive,” so I just said, why don’t I just drive down to you guys next time and we can both avoid being stranded in Detroit. And he said great and Wilander on Wheels was born.
SVM: How did you get W.O.W. going?
MW: I met Cameron Lickle at Zenergy one day. It was the sound of his playing that made me stop. Tennis is all about sound: the sound of the ball, the clapping of the people, then the quiet and, again, the sound of the ball bouncing, the ball hitting the strings. When I met Cameron I could just hear this … bang … bang … bang. And I thought, “Who is that guy?” I knew he wasn’t a local. I could hear him play and I knew he was good. When I met him, he had just quit the Navy and he wanted to try to play professional tennis. He had played Pete Sampras in an exhibition at one point. We talked about W.O.W. and he was also a nuclear engineer when he was in the Navy. He told me, “Mats, I used to run 400 guys on an aircraft carrier, I can certainly run you in a business.” And that was that. We’ve been on the road for about three months each year ever since.
SVM: What is the most important element of becoming a better tennis player?
MW: You have to move your feet. You have to watch the ball. And you really have to actually switch your cell phone off so you can improve. Most people use tennis as a distraction to their everyday life, and they will never improve. You can’t use it as a distraction. If you want to get better, you have to focus. You have to actually learn again.
SVM: What is your favorite quote or personal motto?
MW: My motto is to inspire. If everybody in the world inspires one person, the world would be a much better place. I do believe that if you are as fortunate as I am, you should give back. Tennis has given me so much. I met my wife through tennis. I have four amazing kids because I met my wife. Everything is because of tennis. Really, I compare myself to those musicians who sit and play at the Duchin Room. They may be making $25 for the night, but they are smiling and playing their best. They are loving what they are doing. And they would love it, the playing itself, if they were playing at the Duchin Room for the rest of their life, or if they were playing on Broadway for a huge crowd. I love tennis: I love to watch it, I love to commentate it. I love to teach tennis and I love to play. I love it. If you love something as much as I love tennis, I think you have a responsibility to keep pushing it. You have to continue to pursue your passion and keep giving back to the sport. Look at what tennis has allowed some players to do. Andre Agassi has raised over $100 million for children’s education. Arthur Ashe raised awareness of apartheid in South Africa; he was the first black athlete to go to South Africa. And there are so many others: Billy Jean King, Martina Navratilova for AIDS. But in the end, I don’t do it for the giving back part, because tennis gives me more than I will ever be able to give back. Doctors, lawyers, bankers … very few of them have found what they would have done even if it wasn’t paying the bills. But a musician, he is doing it anyway for the love of the music. And most of them are happy while they are doing it. Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, they are not in love with tennis. I am. I can’t believe how lucky I am to be able to do what I love to do.
SVM: What does the future hold?
MW: I would like to see people play more tennis than they do. See them do more for the game. See the game do more for humanity. Like to see them become better people. By playing the game properly, you become a better person. And I’m not sure that is necessarily true in other sports, but did you know that over the last eight years—ESPN’s top athlete has been a tennis player five times. Tennis is global. Roger Federer is more than just a tennis player, he is an ambassador for sports.
I also want to be able to expand W.O.W., to take tennis out to more people. I would also like to use W.O.W. as a way to elevate the level of tennis in North America. We need to develop better players. To do that, you have to have passion for the sport and you have to have access. I would like to put more W.O.W. RVs on the road, get more teams on the road. And wouldn’t it be great to get other athletes to do the same … athletes that aren’t competing any more. What are they doing? For example, let’s get retired basketball players to go into the projects and inspire kids to play basketball for the pure love of the sport. It is hard to say who inspired which athlete. Every one of us is inspired by another athlete. The next Kobe Bryant is out there somewhere. Let’s find a way to reach him or her, find a way to inspire him.