Piss bottles slosh around the cab of a 37-foot luxury RV as former world number one tennis player Mats Wilander steers his rig into an unusually tight spot in a trailer park in Elverson, Pennsylvania. The stereo clock reads 9 pm as Wilander, 49, disembarks into the cool October night. The ladies drinking Solo cup cocktails at the campsite smile without recognizing the seven-time Grand Slam singles champ. "We're hippie tennis players," Wilander says to me as he lugs wood to the fire pit after a day promoting his traveling tennis clinic Wilander on Wheels (WOW) with his two-man team. "We go from place to place and meet new people. It's much better to do this than go mad at home."
One of the greatest athletes to ever play the game, Wilander now drives across the country about 100 days a year giving tennis lessons to supplement his TV commentating and senior-tour appearances – and to relive the freedom of his early days as a pro, when he'd drive his Porsche from Rome to Hamburg to Paris, traveling from tournament to tournament. "When I first retired from the game, I had times in my life when the days just wouldn't move," he says, "but now I get paid to live my life."
In the Eighties, pros like Wilander took home prize purses that were a fraction of today's multimillion-dollar payouts – top place might have brought about only $36,000. Whereas other stars of his era now pay the bills by doing ordinary pro-tennis clinics – where people pay to hit balls and receive tips from former world champions – Wilander decided it would be more fun to run his own traveling road show, based out of Sun Valley, Idaho, where he lives with his wife and four children. In 2009, he got behind the wheel of his family's RV, set up an itinerary of clinics across the country, and hit the road. "I'm driving because I love driving," Wilander says, rubbing the gray stubble on his perpetually tan face. "I don't care where it's to."
His RV companions include Tim Brown, a 50-year-old photographer who once toured with Steve Miller, and WOW co-founder Cameron Lickle, a 33-year-old former nuclear engineer who briefly played bottom-rung pro tennis and now helps teach the clinics and manages their day-to-day logistics. The schedule is grueling. Yesterday, WOW docked at the public courts in Ossining, New York; today, a private event at Chartwell country club, in Severna Park, Maryland; tomorrow, a tennis club in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania. There are two separate stops in New York City the following day, and then sessions in West Virginia and North Carolina before the tour culminates in Georgia with a weeklong private event on Sea Island. In a typical day, Wilander will conduct up to four 1.5-hour sessions at locales ranging from a private mansion's grass-yard court to the cracked pavement of a public park. A single-session group-event ticket starts at around $300 per person, whereas a full day one-on-one tutorial can cost up to $10,000 – some wealthy clients reserve WOW for a full week. Despite the grind, Wilander's lopsided grin never wavers. "He's the same guy all the time," says the six-foot-two Lickle, who initially had misguided expectations about life on the road with a superstar. "I thought we were going to be, like, boy-band crushing it, but he's got blinders on. Women come up to hug him, and he doesn't care. He looks right past them."
Indeed, the first rule of the RV is no girls. The second is no shitting in the RV. For midnight leaks, there are piss bottles, although that's less of a problem than it could be, thanks to the final rule: no alcohol. "A single beer with the clients would soon turn into 10, and then we'd be swinging from the rafters," says Lickle, who embraces this monastic existence. (It jibes with his time in the Navy.) At 10 pm in the Pennsylvania trailer park, Lickle has already popped his nightly Ambien, while Brown searches for kindling. Wilander sits by the fire pit. It's been a long day, with three sessions on Chartwell's private tennis courts followed by the drive north, but the campground seems to reenergize the former champ. Holding an acoustic guitar, Wilander strums a tune and talks tennis. "Literally, it's the thing I know most about," he says.