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Mats Wilander

GLOBAL’s Dare to Play Tennis Aces It

Former No. 1 Seed And Eight-Time Grand Slam® Winner Mats Wilander Has A Special Bond With The Participants At The Global Down Syndrome Foundation’s Dare To Play Tennis Camp In Denver.


This article was published in the award-winning Down Syndrome World™ magazine. Become a member to read all the articles and get future issues delivered to your door!

With the Help of The Daniels Fund, the University of Denver, and other generous donors, GLOBAL was able to establish the Dare to Play Tennis Camp in 2016. The camp is part of GLOBAL’s health and wellness efforts that link love of sport to better overall health.

The camp is co-organized by the Gates Tennis Center, where eight coaches are trained by GLOBAL staff. Training includes people-first language, consistency of tennis terms, and appropriate physical boundaries (e.g. circles of relationships).

“The participants have a ball, no pun intended!” said Michelle Sie Whitten, President and CEO of GLOBAL. “They are eager to get to the front of the line and hit that forehand or backhand, and you can see the amazing progress.”


When it comes to tennis, few players have a resume quite as impressive as Wilander’s — a resume that includes eight Grand Slam® championships and 739 matches won. Born and raised in Sweden, Wilander learned to play tennis on a parking lot that had been converted into a tennis court. By 1982, when he was just 17 years old, Wilander became the youngest male tennis player at the time to win the French Open. He went on to win five major singles championships by age 20, and by 1988, he was ranked No. 1 in the world.

After largely retiring as a competitive athlete in 1997, Wilander coached Sweden’s Davis Cup team, which he belonged to from 1981 to 1990. In 2002, he was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame.

Nowadays, he runs a program called Wilander On Wheels (WOW) with Cameron Lickle, who was ranked No. 1 on the U.S. Naval Academy’s tennis team and served as its captain in 2002 and 2003. The pair travels around the United States providing clinics and lessons for tennis enthusiasts.

Wilander and Lickle usually work with very advanced players, but they were attracted to the idea of teaching participants who are differently-abled and, in the end, became inspired supporters themselves.

“All someone has to do is to spend one minute with one person with Down syndrome to understand how simply wonderful they are!” Wilander said. “It is terrible to think that there is discrimination against this population in research, medical care, and education. Whatever we can do to help the cause, we here at WOW are in!”


Wilander knows personally that children who need modifications can live happy, fulfilling lives. His son, Erik, has a r are genetic connective tissue disorder called Epidermolysis Bullosa (EB). Affecting just one out of every 20,000 births in the United States, EB leads to fragile skin that blisters and tears from minor friction or trauma.

To help his son, Wilander and his wife, Sonya, decided to move their family of six from Connecticut to Sun Valley, Idaho, where the altitude and lack of humidity helps keep Erik’s skin from blistering. As a result, Erik has been able to ski, golf, and camp, just as typical teenagers do.

Wilander established the MW Foundation (wilanderonwheels.com/foundation) to bring attention to EB, but he also uses the foundation as a platform for raising awareness about issues affecting people with a variety of conditions.

“Down syndrome is much more frequent than EB, but it appears the community still has the har dest battle to fight when so man y people are unaware of the terrible disparity of funding for Down syndrome research,” he said. “We are grateful for everything GLOBAL does and for allowing us to help bring awareness to this important cause.”


Dare to Play Tennis lasts for six weeks, and participants of all ages attend twice a week. The camp ends with an Exhibition D ay match where campers put everything they’ve learned to use, playing against each other as well as Wilander and Lickle.

While learning valuable skills is certainly a benefit, the camp is also about having fun. Few can attest to that quite like Lillian, a 32-year-old self-advocate from Denver who has attended for the past two years and has a special bond with Wilander.

“Tennis is a good exercise,” Lillian said in her husky commanding voice. “It takes a lot of mental focus and physical energy. I like to participate in Dare to Play Tennis to have fun and work on my game.”

Lillian explains how she even managed to get the better of Wilander a time or two.

“It was great,” Lillian said. “I surprised Mats with my strategies by attacking his left hand.”

Kept on his toes by the campers, Wilander enjoys his time on the courts as much as they do.

“I participate in a lot of events . I attend Wimbledon, the US Open, and many other exciting events, but being part of GLOBAL’s camp and sharing tennis with these campers is truly one of the biggest highlights of my year,” Wilander said. “All the participants in GLOBAL’s Dare to Play Tennis Camp clearly love all of their fellow campers and coaches and have such a robust engagement with life. If everyone shared their same zest for life, what a better, different world we might live in!”


“Working with professionals like [Mats] Wilander and [Cameron] Lickle are definitely a perk of being on staff at GLOBAL,” said Evan Winebarger, Senior Manager of Health & Wellness Programs at the Global Down Syndrome Foundation. “Not just because they are celebrities, but because they are amazing people who truly get it and allow the focus to be our participants.”

The admiration is clearly mutual.

“GLOBAL is an organization doing great things with great leadership who are passionate about their cause,” Wilander said after his exhibition match. “All of us are one chromosome or DNA strand away from being differently-abled. It is important to remember that.”

“I participate in a lot of events. I attend Wimbledon, the US Open, and many other exciting events, but being part of GLOBAL’s camp and sharing tennis with these campers is truly one of the biggest highlights of my year!” — Mats Wilander, eight-time Grand Slam® champion, former world No. 1 tennis player, and instructor at Global’s Dare to Play

This article was published in the award-winning Down Syndrome World™ magazine. Become a member to read the whole magazine and get future magazines delivered to your door!  

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