Courtside he coached some of the top women professionals: Mary Pierce, Jennifer Capriati, Maria Sharapova and Anna Kournikova, to drop a few more names. He coached pros at all four Grand Slam tournaments.
And yet, I’ve only seen Craig Wildey, rural Abilene, with a tennis racket in his hand one time in the 14 years I’ve known him.
Ironically, none of his three kids—Aldyn, Carter or Cooper—play tennis, not that they aren’t involved in many other sports.
“It’s difficult to maintain a tennis career in Abilene, Kans.,” Wildey said.
As for the Wimbleton finals this weekend, Wildey wouldn’t miss it, especially with Sharapova making the semifinals.
“I still watch a lot of tennis,” he said. “I stay in tune to what is going. There are still some players that I spent some time with that are still playing or coaching and that is kind of fun.”
Wildey grew up in Spring Lake, Mich., where he played tennis and, well, played tennis. That may be one reason he doesn’t play now, and that he’s okay with his kids not playing the sport.
“I played a little baseball until I was about 11, then it was just tennis,” he said. “I went to a small enough school where I could play some basketball and have some fun. I use to play tennis all the way through to December then I would join the basketball team after that. But tennis dominated.”
It was in junior tennis that he played Agassi, Sampras and Chang.
“They were all a couple years younger than me,” he said. “They were always playing up an age division because they were very good for their ages.
“Aldyn started it at a young age but she didn’t really enjoy it,” Wildey said of his daughter. “She was around it so much because she was at the courts all the time. It’s not that I am opposed to having them play tennis, I just want them to experience all the other sports. I didn’t get a chance to play football; I didn’t get a chance to play baseball at any length. My focus was so much on tennis. They are welcome to play it if they want to. I kind of like the fact that they are enjoying some of the other sports.”
When college rolled around, Wildey had a high enough junior ranking that he attracted the attention of a lot of prestigious tennis coaches. But, ultimately, it was a basketball coach that recruited him to play tennis at KU.
“I really enjoy basketball and at that time Larry Brown was the coach (at Kansas),” Wildey said. “The tennis coach and Larry were pretty tight. So Larry helped recruit me. That was a big deal back then.
“I liked basketball and I liked Larry Brown. A few phone calls from him and it was a pretty easy decision.”
Wildey and teammates put the Jayhawks of Kansas on the college tennis map, a least for a while.
In 1991, the Jayhawks reached as high as 13th in the Volvo poll. Kansas finished second in the Big Eight and received an at-large bid to the NCAA Team Championships.
Chris Walker and Craig Wildey received All-America status for their doubles play. Kansas finished the season ranked 22nd.
Wildey was the first KU tennis player to win over 100 singles matches and 100 doubles matches.
“I am a little disappointed in that KU cut the tennis program. We had really great teams there,” he said. “We were usually ranked in the top 20 in the country. We had some success. I miss the fact that KU doesn’t have that anymore.
“On the playing end, I miss parts of it. But I played so much, for so long. I didn’t play after college. I played some professional matches during the summer time during college. I decided to go the work route after school and started coaching.”
Wildey found himself coaching at the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy, now known as the IMG Bollettieri Tennis Academy, located in Bradenton, Fla. The academy was founded in 1978 by Nick Bollettieri as a full-time tennis boarding school that combines intensive tennis training with an academic curriculum.
The list of professionals that played at the academy is longer than a tennis racket.
On Friday, Part II: The professionals.