Last Friday’s tennis practice started like any other with the student-athletes arriving at the Bullets Tennis Courts alone or in small groups following class and beginning their approximately two-hour session with a light stretch and easy volleys across the net.
But that was the extent of the normal routine as the Bullets were quickly joined by seven-time Grand Slam singles champion and former No. 1 player in the world Mats Wilander. Wilander’s son, Oskar is a sophomore at Gettysburg, though he does not play on the tennis team. Executive Director of Alumni Relations Joe Lynch ’85, who has known Wilander since his days as Director of Communications with the professional tennis tour, helped connect the former pro tennis player with the team for the practice.
For the better part of two hours, Wilander joined the student-athletes in a series of drills and competitions. After warming up against some older tennis fans more acquainted with his reputation as the world’s No. 1, a feat he claimed after winning three of the four Grand Slam singles titles in 1988, the Swedish native took on the top men’s players in a game of “King of the Court.”
Seniors Kevin Maier and Nick D’Amore and junior Mike Mills took their swings against Wilander and far more often than not, the former pro sent the youngsters on their way after a short series of volleys across the net.
“It was a lot of fun,” noted Maier. “I haven’t had that much experience hitting with someone who every time hits the ball clean and in the court.”
Following his time with the men’s team, Wilander went over to the women’s courts to compete in doubles action. The level of play seemed to go up as the players sought to impress the visitor, while at the same time noting his high level of play and listening to his words of encouragement.
“Being able to hit with him allowed not only myself, but a lot of the other girls to step up their game and take it to the next level, really focusing on a basic forehand or a basic backhand,” said junior Samantha Boardman.
“It was so much fun,” said head coach Ali Flores ’08. “I didn’t know what to expect coming in so I had a flexible plan. He was the most accommodating person I’ve ever met; just really friendly and knowledgeable. Just watching him was really a joy for everyone today.”
In addition to the drills, Wilander spent time talking with the student-athletes about the process of playing tennis and imparting the knowledge he’s gained over decades of competition. Wilander remains one of six men to have won Grand Slam singles titles on grass courts, hard courts, and clay courts and he and Rafael Nadal are the only men in tennis history to have won at least two Grand Slam titles on each of the three surfaces.
“He was talking about the process of a match as a whole,” said Maier. “The first set you might lose or be down and it seems like the end but it’s not. It’s part of this marathon of playing matches that you just have to keep going through the works and trying to win.”
After a short break to chat with Wilander, the teams joined forces for a doubles competition similar to the “King of the Court” drill played earlier by the men. Wilander paired with an assortment of partners during the drill, though for the first few minutes he was inundated with questions from the athletes about footwork and racquet positioning. The former No. 1 player was happy to answer all questions and jump into the drill when called.
Both men and women were returning volleys with vigor and determination in front of Wilander. It was arguably the best practice of the season, and a definite boost to the teams’ momentum heading into the heart of Centennial Conference competition.
“I noticed everyone playing their best today,” commented Flores. “He makes everybody better by the way that he hits the ball. He’s accommodating and trying to make everyone better by the way that he plays and they were playing up today for sure. I saw them playing some of their best tennis all season.”
Even near the end of an extensive workout, Wilander asked the team to hit with him for just a few more minutes as he relished the opportunity to engage with the student-athletes. Afterwards, he was quick to note the admiration he has for college athletes, particularly those that compete at small NCAA Division III institutions like Gettysburg.
“I think the one thing I missed most out in life is playing for a school team,” noted Wilander, who went on to tour the Gettysburg Battlefield Saturday. “I think in college there are so many levels of passion and interest. That’s the cool diversity you get when you’re at a smaller college like Gettysburg whereas you go to a Division I school with a great tennis team and you don’t get much diversity in terms of attitude.”