The first set of numbers is the score of one of the most exciting – and for me, particularly memorable – tennis matches ever played: the epic 6 hour, 22 minute 1982 Davis Cup battle in which John McEnroe ultimately prevailed over a gutsy 17-year old named Mats Wilander.
Seven is the clutch of Grand Slam titles the gifted Swede went on to win during his career on every surface: grass, clay and hard courts.
Three is the minutes it took before I was doubled over gasping for air during a remarkable group tennis clinic/US Navy Seal training exercise put on by Wilander here in Delaware last week.
And ‘a lot’ is how many miles Wilander and his partner Cameron Lickle log each year touring the country in their “Wilander on Wheels (WOW)” Winnebago, bringing this rarest of traveling tennathons to a court near you (or, in this case, the DuPont Country Club).
To this day, the Wilander-McEnroe Davis Cup showdown is one of the most thrilling sports events I have witnessed. One reason the match has a special place in my memory is that it happened on my birthday, during a teenage summer at the peak of my passion for tennis (since rekindled). Another is that nothing quite approaches the drama and energy of an important Davis Cup match. Playing for country and team adds a weighted dimension, a level of pressure not found in even the grandest of Grand Slam contests.
Wilander’s performance that day was striking on several levels: his play was flawless, his fitness appeared unchallenged and he demonstrated a level of composure and quiet tenacity against the world’s top-ranked player – on foreign turf no less – that belied his tender years. He left St. Louis having cemented his image as a fighter, a champion and a class act.
So it was no small irony that thirty years later I should find myself on the same court as this legend, trying to a) not embarrass myself, and b) stay alive.
For the last several years, Wilander and Lickle have driven hundreds of thousands of miles to bring their peripatetic program to hackers and aces alike, giving local players across the country an opportunity to bask in the light of a hall-of-famer, but also to pick up some meaningful tips along the way. WOW typically offers up to three 75 minute clinics with eight players of the same level, working them through rapid-fire drills and mini-match play scenarios, testing every facet of their games. Since this unusual roadshow was covered in a Wall Street Journal article two years ago, their phone has been ringing off the hook.
As reported by TSD’s Kevin Noonan a few weeks back, Wilander’s Delaware visit was a tennis two-fer: in addition to hosting back-to-back clinics on Friday, he and Lickle also appeared at an event to help raise funds for the wonderful Rodney Street Tennis and Tutoring Association (RSTTA).
Lickle recently emailed from the road:
We are always excited when we can combine what we do with a great cause such as Rodney Street! Sorry it took a few days to write you all but Mats and I made a command decision to drive to Amelia Island Saturday night after our event at Merion CC,…for his exhibition with Todd Martin and Chris Evert. We just arrived back to DC and the rig has not yet been outfitted with wifi!
(**Apropos of this site that celebrates all things Delawareana, although he grew up out of state, it turns out Mr. Lickle – a US Naval Academy graduate who served two tours in the Middle East – has some serious Delaware roots, with a few hundred cousins or so sprinkled throughout the area.)
Matts Wilander is regarded as one of the smartest players of his era. He is a gentleman and a generous soul to share his knowledge in such a unique and active way with wobbly weekend warriors like me.
Life can throw all kinds of curveballs at you. If you are lucky, one of those pitches will be a wicked topspin lob or impossible French-twist serve flying off the racket of one of the greatest tennis players of all time.
 At the time, this was the longest match ever played. The marathon 2010 Wimbledon slugfest between John Isner and Nicolas Mahut shattered subsequent records for the longest match, coming in at 11 hours, five minutes (featuring a 70-68 fifth set). However, the Wilander-McEnroe match is the longest in Davis Cup history, and Wilander tells me it is still the longest match completed in one day (Isner-Mahut took three days!).