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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Thursday, July 31, 2014

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One of Warren Whitlinger's prized posesions is a picture with his mentor, UCLA basketball coaching legend John Wooden
One of Warren Whitlinger's prized posesions is a picture with his mentor, UCLA basketball coaching legend John Wooden (Photo: Whitlinger Family )

The legend of Warren Whitlinger

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 97, 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 34, 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, now the men's tennis coach at Stanford University, remembers. "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."

So off to a converted indoor tennis court dubbed "The Barn" they would go, not for hours on end, but rather for carefully planned out one hour sessions that focused on not only the fundamentals of tennis, but also how to be mentally strong.

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.

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.

"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."

Even given his accomplishments, Warren Whitlinger knows about adversity. Four 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 two years ago. 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 arose 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."

And that is something to truly be thankful for.

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