Steve Wilkinson's flight Sunday to London's Wimbledon with wife, Barb, represents many things. Courage, certainly. Gratitude. An ending and a beginning.
Diagnosed with kidney cancer three years ago, the tall, lean Wilkinson, 70, is graciously realizing it's unlikely he will play tennis into his 90s, as he once hoped. Although weakened by chemotherapy and radiation, he remains mentally sharp.
So when Eric Butorac, one of the world's top doubles players, asked Wilkinson to coach him courtside at Wimbledon, a dream request, Wilkinson didn't hesitate. But the gratitude is all Butorac's.
"It's hard to see where his influence ends," said Butorac, 30, who wrote many a college paper at the kitchen table of the Wilkinsons' welcoming home a minute's walk from Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter. There, the couple ran one of the most successful summer tennis programs in the nation for 35 years.
"Wilk has meant more to me than any coach I have ever worked with, and Wimbledon is the most important tournament of the year," said Butorac, a national D-III singles and doubles champion at Gustavus. "Other than my parents, Steve is a huge part of why I'm even here."
In January, the Wilkinsons donated their Tennis & Life Camps (TLC, www.tennisandlifecamps.org). Neal Hagberg, long associated with the camp, was named its new director.
"There comes a point when you need to cut the strings," said Wilkinson, who decided that June 19 would be that point. Barb agrees. "I feel a great responsibility toward all the people who keep coming back," including one, she noted, who is returning for the 23rd time. "But I'm 71." In remission from multiple myeloma, Barb wants to spend time with her four grandchildren, read, write, maybe learn piano. "And I want to be there for Steve."
Born in Sioux City, Iowa, Wilkinson picked up a racket at age 3 and "threw a fit until my parents would throw me tennis balls," he said. His favorite book was "The Little Engine That Could," which taught him to "never give up. Give your full effort."
He was mostly self-taught and undeniably driven. He ranked number one at the University of Iowa for three years and played on the circuit in the mid-1960s. He isn't proud that his younger self sometimes shot his opponent an "I-know-you-cheated-me smile."
Then he met a player named Arthur Ashe, a "defining relationship" that taught him how to more gracefully connect the dots between tennis and life.
"Arthur never challenged an opponent's line calls," Wilkinson said. "He never challenged body language or words." Ashe taught his protégé that without trust, there's no point in playing.
Steve and Barb married in 1966 and have two grown daughters. He came to Gustavus in 1970, where he briefly taught religion. But he's best known for his legendary 40-year run as the school's spiritual and supremely patient head tennis coach.
"Steve's mantra is focus on the things you can control and let go of the rest," said Hagberg, who has been with TLC since 1981. "You cannot control winning, or else you would win every time. You cannot control playing well, or else you would play well every time. But you can control, to a great extent, your effort, your attitude, and sportsmanship."
Eric Butorac's father, Tim, was among Wilkinson's first college recruits. Eric attended TLC as a teen, but his relationship with "Wilk" solidified when he started playing tennis at Gustavus, he said by e-mail from London last week. "Ever since Gustavus, I've called Wilk for advice and guidance, both personal and professional."
The brilliance of TLC is that it's never been just a tennis camp. Players are trained by the best, of course, but they also are treated to variety shows, skits and musical entertainment by Hagberg and his wife, the popular musical duo, Neal and Leandra.
After hosting about 400 tennis players their first year, they now serve around 1,500 players annually, from 8-year-olds in family camps to seasoned tournament players.
Daughter Stephanie Wilkinson, 42, learned early that she and sister, Deb, were part of something special. "Seeing my parents teaching others something they loved, and following the tennis and life motto, impacted so many lives," she said.
That teaching will continue this week, as Wilkinson scouts opponents for Butorac, (whose parents will travel with the Wilkinsons to Wimbledon) and recommends strategies.
Hagberg looks forward with a tinge of sadness. "I always envisioned [Steve] being 100 and me being his 81-year-old assistant director, and retiring together to talk about the good old days. But I promised him that I would carry on this vision because I believe in it with my whole heart.
"If it were a regular camp, I would have said goodbye and moved on. But Steve doesn't create anything regular."
Gail Rosenblum • 612-673-7350 email@example.com