Friday, September 2, 2011

Lessons from the Barn
By Doug Russell

October, 2010

When it was first built, the mossy covered building tucked away into a tiny little hidden corner at the end of
7th Street
in Neenah was a simple horse barn. It certainly was nothing special, built in the first half of the 1900’s without heat, running water, or electricity.

As time passed, this tiny barn would evolve into one of the most significant sports venues in Wisconsin history that even the most ardent of fans would never venture to.

Its formal name is the “Neenah Racquet Club” but everyone calls it what it really was first meant to be: “The Barn.” 

Today, the barn’s branches touch some of the best tennis players of the last 15 years, including James Blake, John Isner, Mardy Fish, Jennifer Capriati, and Jim Courier. It is a building that directly produced more than a dozen Wisconsin state championships, seven NCAA titles, and three professional players.

Ironically, however, it all began with someone who never played the game at all.

Warren Whitlinger was born in Barnsville, Ohio two months before World War I broke out in 1914. He was a natural athlete, playing both baseball and basketball at Ohio State. As a Buckeye basketball player, Whitlinger let the Big Ten in scoring while earning All-Conference honors as team captain in 1936.

Today, at 96, Warren Whitlinger is known for an entirely different sport, and not as a player, but rather as a coach. As the revered patriarch of the Whitlinger tennis family, he remains sharp as a tack, and is still sought-after as a mentor of young athletes in the Fox Valley. His lessons are legendary; his philosophies broken down into simple phrases.

Grandson Tate, now 32, took lessons from the man lovingly known by most that know him as ‘Baba’. “We would always have these little note cards he gave at the start of practice with quotes that I’ll never forget,” Tate Whitlinger says. One day it was Make it Happen, the next it was The harder I work, the luckier I’ll get. We would have to rehearse them in front of the whole class.”

How did a former basketball player morph into one of the great tennis minds in the country when he himself never played the sport? Moreover, how does a horse barn in Neenah, Wisconsin become a pipeline to professional tennis?  It all began with Warren’s son, John, during the summer of 1968.

John Whitlinger, like his father before him, was a naturally gifted athlete. He excelled in not only his father’s sport, basketball, but also the game his older sister, Wendy, was playing, tennis.

I loved basketball,” John remembers today. “But my dad and I had a heart-to-heart one evening in the den in our house, and he basically said ‘you can be good in two sports, but if you want to be great in one, you might have to give the other one up.’ I realized that I wasn’t going to be the tallest guy in the world, so we went the tennis route.”

If John Whitlinger was going to be serious about tennis, however, there needed to be a venue that would be suitable year-round for practice. In the late 1960’s in East-Central Wisconsin, there simply was no such structure. As luck would have it, though, the perfect place was just around the corner from the family home located at
810 Hewitt Street

“It’s just amazing that that building – a converted horse barn – was transformed into a tennis court,” John says. “It’s just incredible.”

“Dad started reading a lot, and studying and watching a lot, and learning the ins and outs of what needs to be done fundamentally to make a shot right, and then also what you need mentally as an athlete,” according to John Whitlinger.

So off to the barn they would go, not for hours on end, but rather for carefully planned out hour-long sessions that focused on not only the fundamentals of tennis, but also how to be mentally strong. Warren Whitlinger’s coaching ace in the hole, however, was some 1,800 miles to the west.

“John Wooden had a workout for every single practice that UCLA had,” Warren says today. “He would take two hours to develop it, and then he would go out and execute it. Then, afterwards, he would take 10 minutes to evaluate it. He learned from every practice. He reviewed what the plan was, what the impact was, and how effective it was.”

To this day, Warren Whitlinger pays homage to John Wooden, who passed away in June. One of his most prized keepsakes is the picture of the two of them together the one time they met during one of Wooden’s speaking engagements in Green Bay.

After giving up basketball, John Whitlinger went on a tennis tear. He won an eye-popping 109 consecutive matches en route to singles state championships in each of his four years in high school. A two-time All-American at Stanford, John led his team to NCAA team championships in 1973 and 1974. Also in 1974, Whitlinger captured both the NCAA singles and doubles titles himself, then played professionally for six years. During that time, he was ranked among the top 50 in the world in both singles and doubles.

It was then his twin nieces, Tami and Teri, took notice.

“My Uncle John was 15 years older than Teri and I,” Tami says today. “As we grew up, he was almost like a big brother. He was playing tennis at a high level, and we would follow his career through juniors, and then when he got a scholarship to Stanford, and we watched him there. That introduced us to tennis when we were young.”

Considering the success their uncle had with their grandfather, Tami and Teri Whitlinger did the exact same thing. They went religiously to the barn for lessons, even after neighboring Lake Winnebago had frozen solid.

“We would go in there in the middle of winter in your winter jackets, and Baba would turn on the lights and the blowers, and we would just stand there warming up for the first ten minutes in our coats,” Tami remembers. “Little by little, we would peel off layers. It was the place we went to get away and do our thing.”

Like her Uncle John, Tami Whitlinger re-wrote the record books, first in Wisconsin, and then at Stanford. Just like her uncle, Tami won four straight WIAA singles titles, and went undefeated in high school. She was ranked No. 1 nationally before joining her twin sister Teri and Uncle John (by then an assistant coach) in Palo Alto. Tami went on to play professionally for 10 years, and was ranked as high as No. 40 in the world before retiring in 1997.

Even as Tami Whitlinger was circling the globe advancing to at least the third round in each of tennis’ Grand Slam events, she never forgot her training, her roots, or the barn.

“It was just wooden walls, and the court was so fast,” Tami says today. “There were no bells or whistles to it. There was no bathroom, there was no water. You were there to play tennis.”

The Warren Whitlinger story hardly ends with its two most well-known players; son John and granddaughter Tami. Warren’s other son (and Tami’s father) Kip excelled in basketball and is Appleton Xavier’s all-time leading scorer. Kip’s wife, Ruth is the general manager at Fox Cities Racquet Club. Tami’s twin sister, Teri, helped lead Stanford win four straight NCAA team championships, while herself winning the 1990 NCAA doubles title.

Today, Tami Whitlinger is Tami Jones, married to former World No. 1 doubles player Kelly Jones. Together they run an elite tennis coaching school based in Florida and Appleton. Their daughter, Makenna, 12, is an accomplished player in her own right at the junior level.

Teri Whitlinger is married to noted tennis coach Craig Boynton, who has coached players such as Jennifer Capriati and Jim Courier.

Tami and Teri’s brother, Tate, is a teaching pro at Fox Cities Racquet Club, and their sister, Tori, remains actively involved in the game as well.

Warren’s daughter, Wendy, retired last fall as Director of Tennis at Fox Cities Racquet Club and is still the Secretary of the Fox Valley Tennis Association, of which her brother, Kip, is President. Wendy’s daughter, Melissa Chitko, had a successful collegiate playing career at both Tennessee and Wisconsin, and is now the girls tennis coach at Neenah High School. Melissa’s sisters, Meredith and Megan played at Ohio State and Miami of Ohio, respectively.

“Baba has a gift,” Tami Whitlinger-Jones says today. “He I’ve said so many times to myself: where does this come from? Where does he get this gift? I also think it’s a testament to him that so many of us have become coaches. The desire to give back to the game clearly stems from Baba. We’ve been given a gift in him, and now we have to carry this on.”

“I hope Baba lives to be 200,” granddaughter Tori Whitlinger-Pitsch says. Tori hasn’t been able to be as active recently in the game due to illness, but speaks with her grandfather daily. “He is my rock. He is my hero. Every day I try to use something I’ve learned from him to get through every day. We always say: ‘We hope and we pray for the best, but we plan and we prepare for the rest.’”

Even given his accomplishments, Warren Whitlinger knows about adversity. Three years ago, his wife of 66 years, Naomi, passed away after a 9-year battle with Alzheimer’s disease.

Another adversity came when the Whitlinger family home burned down last winter. Engulfed in the flames were many of the mementoes gathered over the last 45 years as Wisconsin’s first family of tennis. However, no one was hurt, and from the ashes rose a renewed sense of purpose and optimism.

“What allowed us to handle the tragedy and be where we are today was the teamwork that Wendy, Kip, Tate, John, and everyone pitched in to make my new home so wonderful,” Warren says today. “It came not because somebody paid a contactor. It came because some of the people in our family wanted to show their respect for me and for our team.”

For Team Whitlinger, even the destruction of their house wasn’t really a loss; they say it was just yet another lesson. The enduring legacy of Warren Whitlinger is the hope that it is a lesson that others can learn from.

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting article! I grew up at 806 Hewitt (1979-1985) and never knew any if this! I remember playing outside the barn during the winter because we could make huge forts there and the icicles hung from the side of the roof to the ground. I also remember playing with Tori and Tate when we were little. I am sorry to hear about the family house burning down! Anyway... great article, and prayers for Tori!

    Kari (Langness) Williams
    Raleigh, NC