Bill Speltz: Take it from a former world No. 1 — sports passion is a friend for life | Tennis

Mats Wilander has reached a point in life where he can do pretty much whatever he wants.

The former No. 1 tennis player in the world certainly has the means after winning eight grand slams and cashing in on the endorsements. He could watch the sunrise in the South of France one day, try salmon fishing in Alaska the next and maybe spend the whole month of December on the ski slopes in his adopted Idaho home if he so desired.

He doesn’t do those things. Last Wednesday the devoted family man was busy teaching tennis lessons to an 8-year-old girl at 6:30 am and an 80-yard-old man later in the day. And less than two weeks from today he’ll once again make the drive to Missoula for the annual Watson Children’s Shelter Tennis Pro-Am.

Why would an International Tennis Hall of Famer bother? Wouldn’t he much rather be down in Tahoe taking in Oktoberfest?

“I do what I want and I want to go to Missoula, Montana,” Wilander said with joy in his voice. “I love the area. My daughter Emma went to school there and the (Pro-Am) event is great. Any time you can help out children by just participating in a tennis tournament — it’s an honor for me to be invited.

“The reward lies in promoting the game. But more importantly walking over to the shelter to see where the money goes and see if we all together as a community can save happy lives. I can’t believe I’m so lucky I can have tennis as my job, whether it’s playing, teaching, watching, analyzing, helping out … I can never repay what tennis has given me.”

There’s a lesson in there for all of us: Whether it’s sports or music or cooking, never let go of that passion. Don’t let it fade away over time. Don’t let injuries or ego or financial status snuff the light. Don’t let a crazy idea drift into your head that you’re supposed to let it all go when you reach a certain age.

Fifty-eight-year-old Wilander still plays and teaches tennis regularly at a club in Hailey, Idaho. He also watches tennis, honored to be part of an elite fraternity of champions that includes guys like Roger Federer.

If you didn’t get a chance to watch Federer’s farewell at the Laver Cup two weeks ago, you missed a moment that transcended sports. Nothing compares.

There’s a lot of money involved with all professional sports and it’s mostly cutthroat. Watching a moment where a revered athlete is collectively embraced by all of his rivals, it just never happens.

“I was crying — sitting next to the TV with a couple of friends and I had tears in my eyes,” said Wilander, who grew up in Sweden. “I can’t believe you’re that successful, and you’re with your two biggest competitors in your career — in fact the two guys that mostly probably held him back in (Rafael) Nadal and (Novak) Djokovic — and it still it becomes very apparent that in the end, it’s the game.

“In the end, they respect the sport. In the end, it’s a sport and you’re supposed to have fun playing sports.”

Tennis will survive without Federer. But there will never be another like him.

Not surprisingly, Wilander chooses to look on the bright side when it comes to watching his favorite sport.

“Roger is easily the most influential, most gracious tennis player on the court and a great ambassador off the court,” Wilander offered. “But now we have this new kid, Carlos Alcaraz, who is playing tennis with a smile on his face, likes to win, tries to compete as hard as possible all the time.

“He’s spreading enthusiasm with his demeanor, his shot selection that I think is going to push tennis to the forefront of, ‘Oh my gosh, this looks like too much fun.’ He’s pursuing his passion with such a great attitude that I think it’s going to be contagious. Parents and coaches will look at this — compete like crazy while having fun. To me he’s a gift from heaven when Federer steps away.”

Even if you’re not a fan of tennis, talking to Wilander makes you feel enthusiastic about life. That’s a gift perhaps even greater than all those special Slam moments he gave us in the 1980s.

Editor’s note: The Watson Children’s Shelter Tennis Pro-Am will start on Thursday, Oct. 20, with a live pro auction at The Barn on Mullan Road. Play will be held on Friday through Sunday at the Peak and the public is invited to watch. For more information, call 549-0058 or log on to: watsonchildrensshelter.org.

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