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Will Cleveland, co-owner at Wildwood Racquet Club, was recently inducted in the United States Tennis Professionals Association’s Midwest Hall of Fame.

Racket changes his life

Teenage fascination culminates in Hall of Fame

– This is all Rod Laver’s fault. Ken Rosewall’s, too.

Until those mesmerizing few hours when they squared off in Dallas that day in 1972, you see, Will Cleveland’s world had far more Mark Spitz in it than, well, Laver or Rosewall. Swimming had been his thing growing up, not tennis. Now he was 16 and done with swimming and was seeking a new outlet for all that considerable teenage energy.

“I couldn’t hit the hanging curveball, and I couldn’t jump and rebound, and I wasn’t big enough at the time to play football,” recalls Cleveland, the co-owner at Wildwood Racquet Club who was inducted into the United States Tennis Professionals Association’s Midwest Hall of Fame last week. “I thought, ‘Well this is something to occupy my time.’ ”

And then he and his dad sat down to watch Laver take on Rosewall in their world championship match in Dallas. And the course of a young life changed in five sets.

“It was one of those matches that basically revolutionized and kicked off the tennis boom of the ’70s,” Cleveland says. “From that point on, I dedicated every moment I could to hitting a tennis ball. I was totally fascinated with it.”

Forty years along, that fascination has wrought a Hall of Fame career that’s spanned 30 of those years and shaped hundreds of backhands and forehands. And touched countless lives either directly or indirectly.

One of Cleveland’s former teaching pros is the head pro at the prestigious Midtown Athletic Club in Chicago, a 20-court indoor facility with a staff of 39 professionals. Current Wildwood pro Mike Andrews, Cleveland says, will get the Hall call himself one of these days. And longtime Wildwood pro and Cleveland’s co-owner Lee Ann Berning is “the best tennis pro in the country,” in his estimation.

“She is, in my opinion, the finest tennis professional I’ve ever seen or ever known or been associated with,” Cleveland says. “And I’ve been associated with a lot of them.

“And so in terms of developing an organization, I think that has been my greatest satisfaction. I think I am proudest of being able to develop a really large number of tennis professionals that have enjoyed and still enjoy success.”

And now, after 30 years in the game, here comes another satisfaction: Hall of Fame recognition.

“Unless you’re like Pete Rose or a major-league ballplayer or something like that, I don’t think you set out in your career and think, ‘Wow, I’m 25 years old or 30 years old and my goal 25 years from now is to be in the Midwest Hall of Fame.’ It’s not how I imagined it,” he says.

“It’s kind of one of those lifetime-achievement things. It’s a little humbling, but on the other side, I take great pride in it.”

And if there’s a touch of serendipity to it all, so much the better.

For Cleveland, this all began with Laver-Rosewall in Dallas, and that led to teaching gigs with Parks and Recreation in Kettering, Ohio, when Cleveland was in college at Wright State in Dayton, and then a tragic set of circumstances led to what he still refers to as his defining moment: being asked to coach Wright State’s tennis team while still a student there.

“Sadly, the coach that was there had developed serious cancer and passed away at the end of that year,” Cleveland recalls. “I think the athletic department at the time just said, ‘Hey, let’s get somebody in the interim who can drive the bus and not screw it up too much.’

“We had a successful season, and the job was mine. And by the time I finally graduated, it was a pathway. Something in the back of my mind said, ‘OK, here’s an opportunity,’ and from that point on I moved forward and got involved in teaching and running a club and that kind of thing.”

Some kind of thing it turned out to be.

bensmith@jg.net

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