A proud native of Minnesota, Wheaton went to Stanford University and played No. 1 for that prestigious contingent in 1988 before turning professional the following year. In the bigtime game, Wheaton was an admirable professional, representing the U.S. in Davis Cup, reaching the penultimate round at Wimbledon when he was 22 in 1991, rising to No. 12 in the world that same season. The 64 Wheaton struck down the likes of Ivan Lendl, Andre Agassi, Jim Courier, Michael Chang and other standouts across his enviable career, eventually retiring at the end of 2001 at 32, leaving behind an enviable legacy.
Wheaton has just released a deeply moving and important new book called “My Boy, Ben.” To be clear, this is not a tennis book, but the fact remains that those who have followed the sport closely over the yearsand people who are aware of Wheatons prowess as a playerwill undoubtedly enjoy reading it immensely. Wheaton writes poignantly and powerfully about the eight years and more that he shared and the extraordinary bond he developed with a beguiling yellow lab named Ben, who altered his life irrevocably. It is an irresistible human story about the joy of having Ben and the almost unimaginable sadness of losing the dog. This is a memoir of their happy, and fulfilling years together, and a larger life portrait in many ways. Wheaton reflects with remarkable clarity and passion on a period that took him in some crucial directions, toward another rewarding relationship with a new dog named Gracie, and in the direction of a total commitment to his faith.
Late last week, I spoke for an hour with the cerebral Wheaton on the telephone, and we covered a wide range of topics, starting, of course, with the book. Many years had passed since Ben had passed away. Wheaton was in the latter stages of his tennis career when he found Ben, and his transition into retirement and other endeavors was eased and enormously behooved by the time spent with his companion. I asked Wheaton about his primary motivation in writing the book at this time. He responded, “The book took quite a bit of time to put together. I think I started it in the fall of 2009, a little more than two years after losing Ben. Aside from a few chapters, I didnt make much progress for about a year-and-a-half because I was busy doing other things like a radio program. But I really started to make a lot of progress on the book in the summer of 2011. I finished around the end of 2012 and then it took me almost a year to find the right publisher for it. I am really thankful that I found Tristan Publishing. They did a fantastic job and it took all of this past year to publish it.”
Having described the process of the books birth, Wheaton now gets to the heart of why he did it. He explains, “There are really two reasons as I look back as to why I wrote it. This was a journey with Ben that was not just about losing him and what happened afterwards, but having him during the particular time in my life that I didlate in my years on the tennis tour, to the transition off the tour, to playing some part time senior tennis, to what I am doing now with writing and radio. And then, of course, there was the losing element of it. It just made a really strong impression on my life and faith so I wanted to share that story and I hope readers enjoy it, even in the sense that maybe it will take someone out of the things they see going on in the world in the Middle East and so forth. I wanted it to be a nice book to read and hope I succeeded. Then there is the other element of wanting to share in one of the most difficult moments of my life, and the unexpected grace that followed. Love and loss is a universally shared experience.”
Indeed it is, and Wheaton eloquently elaborates on that theme, saying, “The book has only been out since mid-November but I have gotten really good feedback not only from dog lovers who can instantly relate to the story, but even from non-dog lovers who realize that, yes, this is a dog story but it is also more than that. Whether we have lost a loved oneand, by the way, I would never compare the loss of a dog to losing a human loved one in your familyor losing a dream in your life or a job or a marriage, loving and loss is a trial. We all face trials in life so I think in some ways the book is relatable to anyone who has gone through a difficult trial in their life because we feel that pain, sting and bitter feeling inside of us when we go through something really painful. That is why I believe people who are not dog lovers can still get something out of this book.”
The book is meticulously organized, and clearly Wheaton spent considerable time reflecting on not only what he wanted to say but how he wanted to convey it. My Boy, Ben most comes to life when Wheatons beloved dog dies. Only a heartless individual could read Wheatons musings on that dark stretch in his life without being profoundly moved; dry eyes during that part of the book are absolutely out of the question. He takes us through every stage of the grieving process, but I wondered if investing so much emotion and discipline in writing the book turned out to be the last critical step in that hard process.
Wheaton replies, “I think you are right. There is no question that writing this book helped with the healing and grieving even more. I remember spending a lot of time in my chair in the corner of my bedroom and the living room, just sitting and looking out the window and thinking about what I was feeling and thinking in that period of my life. When you write about something it does make you think about it deeply and I began to understand more about the nature of my relationship with Ben, more about the role or the dynamic of a loss or a trial in our life, and more about God’s grace as I wrote it. I learned a lot writing this book and it made things more clear to me.”
I asked Wheaton if perhaps the bond with his dog brought his career to a quicker conclusion than might have otherwise been true. He does not believe that was the case. “I got Ben in 1998 when I was 29 and I played until I was 32 in 2001. One of the initial reasons I wanted to get a dog was because I was introduced to pheasant hunting by my fitness coach. That was the ostensible reason for getting Ben. The life of a professional tennis player is unusual and fast paced. You dont really have a home base and you are away from your family a lot of the time, so maybe I didnt realize that I wanted something normal and simple in my life. I had grown up with dogs but had never had a relationship with a dog like I had with Ben. I continued to play even after I officially retired in 2001 in some senior events and World TeamTennis. Ben was an additive thing to my tennis for sure, but even when I was in that transitional period, every time I would go out to practice he would be in the front seat of the car, always there beside the practice court, retrieving balls afterwards. Having Ben made it more enjoyable going through the tedium and grind of practice.”
The conversation shifts to a different terrain. We are conversing now about the game, and Wheatons remarkable role in it. I wanted to know from Wheaton’s perspective why he peaked in many ways as a 22-year-old in 1991, the year he made it all the way to the semifinals of Wimbledon and also captured the Grand Slam Cup. When he eclipsed both Ivan Lendl and Andre Agassi on the lawns of the All England Club, Wheaton seemed certain to climb higher than No. 12 in the world. The top ten seemed inevitable for him. Major titles seemed entirely possible. His world looked boundless. What happened as he examines it nearly a quarter of a century later?
“As I look back, asserts Wheaton, “I agree that I could have done better. I think it is attributed to several things. I was young and wasnt as mature as I should have been. I dont think I had the [right] outlook about my game and what it was going to take to be consistently at the top or what it was going to take to win a Grand Slam tournament. My work ethic could have been better. I had some injuries too. Maybe I could have had a more consistent coach who had the vision to take me from where I was to where I wanted to go. So I dont think you can pinpoint just one thing. At the same time I am thankful for how well I did, too. I was No. 12 in the world. I earned a very good living doing it. I experienced an amazing life of being on the tour. I wouldnt trade it for anything. Halfway through my career I came to a very faith changing point in my life when I was 24. So there were a lot of positives.”
Expanding on what he might change if he could return to that juncture in his life and replay it, Wheaton says, “Maybe training outside of Minnesota during my career where there would have been more good players would have been better. I love it here in Minnesota but you know how it is being in a training environment where there is a lot of camaraderie and everyone is pushing each other. I had that when I was at the Bollettieri Academy in my late teens. I also think I maybe over-trained off the court in my professional career and wish I had spent more time working on my serve, even though I had a really good serve. I wish I had spent more time practicing my serve accuracy and certain things like that than I did running sprints or lifting weights.”
Having said that, Wheaton fondly recalls some of the seminal moments in his career, including his five set win over Agassi in the quarterfinals of Wimbledon in 1991. Agassi had bypassed the worlds premier event for three consecutive years (1988-90) with misguided rebelliousness, but he built a commanding lead over Wheaton on the Centre Court. He was ahead two sets to one and 4-2, 0-40 in the fourth set before Wheaton somehow held serve on his way to an improbable comeback triumph ( 6-2, 0-6, 3-6, 7-6, (3) 6-2). Wheaton says, “That was definitely was one of the most memorable matches of my career. Agassi hadnt won Wimbledon yet, but he would win it the next year. He was sort of apathetic about even playing Wimbledon but he had such a great return and he took the ball so early that he knew something about what to do on grass. When he almost went up a second break in the fourth set, it was basically Game Over but I held serve and won that set 7-6 and then won the fifth going away. That is an incredibly good memory. Another one is beating Chang in the finals of the Grand Slam Cup, and I remember playing Davis Cup. A few other matches stick out in my mind as well.”
Wheaton emerged at a time when the so-called ”Greatest Generation” of American players was in the forefront of the game. Pete Sampras, Agassi, Jim Courier, and Michael Chang were the pace setters, and Wheaton was there among them as were Todd Martin and Mal Washington. It was a golden era for the U.S. How much did it spur him on to be part of that historical journey, and where did he see himself fitting in alongside so many formidable competitors?
“I think it made a big difference in the development of all of us,” he says. ”We were all friendly with each other and we grew up in the juniors together and there is no question that the spirit of friendly competition definitely pushes you to go farther than you would on your own. You have a measuring stick and so all of those different players from the Big Four of Sampras, Agassi, Courier and Chang and then Todd and Mal and others made it special. That was quite a group of players and it made a big impact on the tour and there is no question that having a group of players about the same age coming along at the same time was like a wave of momentum for all of us.”
As he glances in his rear view mirror at that exhilarating stretch, did Wheaton envision Sampras blasting out of that elite class to put himself in strong consideration as a candidate for being the best of all time? Replies Wheaton, “When we came up in the juniors, in a cocky teenage sort of way, I figured we were all going to make big impacts on the tour. We had been hearing people wondering what had happened to American tennis in the mid-eighties and so forth, and we were not quite in the news yet. But we were good juniors and I remember all of us were thinking, Just wait till we get out there. Pete was one of the best of us but not necessarily the best. He always played up in my age group. He was a great player but I would not necessarily have picked him to win 14 majors, above Agassi or something like that. But when Pete won the U.S. Open in 1990, there was a big jump there for him and [a few years later] he started his run at Wimbledon and you began to realize that this guy has taken his game to another level.”
Wheaton was consistently fine and often dandy in the juniors. Did that make him believe he was on his way to lofty territory in the sport? He answers, “When I was about 12, I just assumed I would be a professional tennis player. I didnt necessarily have to talk myself into believing it. I was doing well locally here in this section and was playing national tournaments in the summer and I was in the top five in the nation in the juniors, so I figured I would play high school tennis, go off to college, turn pro and go over to Wimbledon someday. There is no real basis in truth for thinking something like that but maybe it is just the dream of a youngster. During my sophomore year of high school, Nick Bollettieri came here to do a clinic in Minnesota and I was about 15 years old. I had met Nick with my parents and had gone down to his academy for a week or two somewhere along the way when I was 11 or 12. So I sort of knew him a little bit. When I was 15 he saw me play and invited me to come down to his academy and try it out. This was at a time when I was regressing in the juniors, in my first year of the 16s. I went with my parents to Nicks midway through my sophomore year and for two-and-a-half years we lived off campus. I jumped hugely as a player because there was unlimited court time and there was the competition with other good players and the camaraderie and coaching. All of those things were there in spades.”
That great grooming ground at Bollettieri’s led to Wheaton’s tremendous season in the 18s, and on he went to Stanford to play for Dick Gould. He really changed my game, reflects Wheaton appreciatively about the revered Gould. He took me from being a big hitting, big serving baseliner to being someone who came to the net a lot on my first and even my second serve. He really forced me into that. It was something that I didnt necessarily believe in but his enthusiasm and persistence changed me into the kind of [serve-and-volley] player that launched me onto the professional tour at 19. So those times at Bollettieri’s and at Stanford were integral in forming me as a player.
Becoming an attacking player set Wheaton apart in many ways among his peers. The only other guy in that upper crust of American tennis during that span who came forward with regularity and did not operate so abundantly from the backcourt was Sampras. Todd Martin was another who relished getting to the net. Did Wheaton therefore see himself as distinctive as a result of his playing style versus so many of his compatriots, especially Agassi, Courier and Chang?
“I did,”he responds unhesitatingly. “That was a time in the game when people actually served-and-volleyed. That has been one of the hugest changes to see that now, even at Wimbledon, hardly anyone serves-and-volleys anymore. So this period when I was coming up was a time when there was still contrasting styles on the tour, baseliners, counter-punchers, attackers, serve-and-volleyers. I came on tour playing that style and that was a style that could be successful. I always felt when I was playing my best, serving well, volleying well, taking my opponent out of the match with me dictating the outcome for better or worse, those are the matches where I felt if I executed well I stood a good chance of winning, even against players who were ranked higher than me like an Agassi, a Courier and a Chang. It was the other guys like Sampras, Ivanisevic and Becker who played more like I did who I struggled more with because they could do the same things I could do except a little bit better than I could. Anyway, I loved the contrasting styles we had back then.”
The facts completely back up Wheaton’s assertions about how his game matched up against other players. He concluded his career with a 6-5 winning record over Chang. He was 3-3 against Courier, and a respectable 3-6 versus Agassi. Yet he was 0-8 against the towering Sampras, 0-6 against Becker and 1-6 in his series with Ivanisevic. Did those imposing players apply pressure too frequently and thus deny Wheaton the chance to be in charge of his own destiny?
”That is exactly right. I didn’t know those head-to-head records off the top of my head but that makes sense. A lot of guys struggled with Sampras and Becker. They were really good players. I had close matches with Pete but he served so well and he did what I did, but better. It was a tough matchup. Some of the counter-punchers were tough for me as well. Brad Gilbert was a tough opponent for me [Gilbert was 6-0 over Wheaton] and so were Courier and Chang and Agassi because they returned so well. It was an era when guys like McEnroe and Connors and Lendl were still playing and, of course, you had Becker and Stefan Edberg and guys like Ivanisevic and Michael Stich. It was like living at the sea where a lot of different tides and waves were going in a lot of different directions and crashing into each other. It was an interesting time to play.”
Clearly and irrefutably, it was an intriguing period in the game. But how does Wheaton feel about observing todays brand of competitors, particularly the illustrious Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, and, to a lesser extent, Murray. How does he assess what these magnificent players have given to the game with their virtuosity and enduring success?
“The game always continues to progress so it is impossible to compare Sampras to Rod Laver. The only way you can do it is purely on Grand Slam titles and that is not really a great way to compare either. Would Sampras beat Laver? Well, probably he would with his newer racket and whatever, but those discussions are difficult to derive conclusions on. I just think these two guys Federer and Nadal are the two best players of all time, and I dont think that is going out on a limb to say that. I also think they are two of the great sportsmen the game has ever seen, and they are just amazingly good players. I have a lot of respect for those two guys but also Djokovic. Maybe Djokovic has not had enough time. Maybe he will get there over the next few years to be on the same level with Federer and Nadal and have the same records from the standpoint of majors won, but Djokovic is certainly heading in that direction. Djokovic is incredibly determined, hard working and mentally tough. He is so fundamentally sound in all aspects of the game. Only someone with his level of mental and physical strength could break into what Federer and Nadal have done. Those guys are taking the game to a whole new level.”
As Wheaton watches the current game, does he believe he would play the same way now as he once did? Could he or anyone else still serve-and-volley in that fashion?
“That is a good question because players will play the way they can to win. Apparently there are only a couple of options now. Either they can’t win doing that [attacking and going forward constantly] or they were just never raised playing that way and that style of play is a thing of the past now. I am not sure of which one. But the fact that we dont see players playing that way is because they dont feel they can win with that style in the game today. I played some at Wimbledon in the 35 doubles a few times since retiring. I remember I was on Centre Court somewhere between 2006 and 2009 and I just kind of dropped a ball from about shoulder level down, and the ball bounced up almost like it was a hard court. Back in the 1990s the ball bounced so much lower. It was such an advantage to come in then. Even though Nadal is a far greater player than I could ever dream of being, if I had been playing him back in my time on the grass with his extreme grips and the ball bouncing low, this would have been a good opportunity to sneak out an upset because of the way the courts played then. But with the courts playing like they are today, I think Lendl would have won Wimbledon a couple of times.”
As this highly enjoyable interview neared its conclusion, Wheaton turns his attention to his life these days as a married man and the father of a 19 month old son, and to how things have unfolded since he retired more than 13 years ago. ”When I came off the tour in 2001,” he says, ”you have the feeling, ‘Now what do I do?’ It is a very difficult transition. From the time I was four years old, I was a tennis player, so coming off the tour at 32, I was trying to figure out what I was going to do with my life. I knew I did not want to go back on the road and be gone 30 to 40 weeks a year. I wanted to be home and have a normal life again. Then some doors opened up. One of the first people I talked to early in 2002 was Glen Crevier, the sports editor of the Minneapolis Tribune. He opened up a forum for me to start doing some contributing columns on the four Grand Slams. So I do columns for them and I started doing some other writing. About two or three years later, in 2005, I wrote my first book called “University of Destruction.”
Wheaton made another significant career move in 2002. A local professional athlete was hosting a radio show and he invited Wheaton on as a guest. When that athlete elected to stop doing the show a few weeks later, he asked Wheaton if he would be interested in taking over as the new host. Wheaton gladly stepped in. By 2008, the show became syndicated. The subject matter has changed, and now the talk is largely about culture, current events and faith rather than sports.
”That has been a big part of my life and radio and writing have been great. But I have still been involved in tennis and I was on the USTA board for four years. That gave me a new perspective on the game from an off-court standpoint. I have played a lot of tennis including four years or so of World TeamTennis, and the 35 and over events at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. I have played exhibitions here and there. So I have tried to remain in the game because it has had such a big impact on my life. It has been good to be involved in some way in tennis.”
A fascinating conversation with David Wheaton concluded. It occurred to me when I hung up the phone that this is a laudable fellow in so many ways. I am glad I read his new book. I wish him well and I hope you delve into “My Boy, Ben,” which reflects exceedingly well on the man who wrote it.
<You can purchase David Wheaton’s book, “My Boy, Ben: A Story of Love Loss and Grace” at Davidwheaton.com or Amazon.
<Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for tennischannel.com since 2007. You can purchase Steve’s latest book “The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time” here.
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