TENNIS BIO

Wheaton FH volleyDavid was tossed his first tennis balls by his mother at age four, played his first tournament at eight, and won the Minnesota State High School tennis title in 1984 as a 9th grader. He finished his junior tennis career in 1987, earning the number one ranking in America and winning the U.S. Open Junior Championships.

David helped Stanford garner the NCAA team title in 1988, and received the Block S award as the most outstanding freshman athlete at Stanford. Shortly thereafter, he turned professional on Independence Day in 1988.

As a professional, David played thirteen years on the Tour and achieved a career high world ranking of number 12 in 1991. He won the largest prize money event in tennis—the Grand Slam Cup—in Munich in 1991. He also had his best career results in the Grand Slam events reaching the semifinals of Wimbledon (1991) and the quarterfinals of both the U.S. and Australian Opens (1990). Another highlight of David’s career was representing his country in Davis Cup competition (1993). In all, David won three singles and three doubles tournaments on Tour scoring wins over Andre Agassi, Jimmy Connors, Ivan Lendl, Jim Courier, Michael Chang, and Stefan Edberg along the way.

David is still involved in tennis: He plays professionally part-time (he won the Wimbledon Over 35 Doubles Championship with T.J. Middleton in 2004), writes Grand Slam preview articles for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and served four years on the Board of Directors of the United States Tennis Association. He was inducted into the U.S.T.A. Northern Section Tennis Hall of Fame in 2005, the Intercollegiate Tennis Hall of Fame in 2012, and was honored with the Eugene L. Scott Renaissance Award in 2011—an award presented to a national/international tennis champion who demonstrates excellence in promoting and developing the sport of tennis in public parks.

CAREER STORY

How did a boy from the ice hockey state of Minnesota develop into one of the top tennis players in the world? The answer is two-fold: God-given ability and dedication from family and others.

David had a unique grandfather named John Hessey (who passed away in the year 2000 at the ripe old age of 101). Gramps, as he was known, had always been involved in fitness and sport–he liked to swim, speed skate, road bike, and downhill ski. As a matter of fact, he was the country’s oldest active member of the National Ski Patrol when he was in his 80’s. His weight lifting regimen even continued up until the time he passed away.

Two sports that particularly interested Gramps were tennis and golf. He taught himself both sports simply by reading instructional books. He became a tennis teaching professional in his seventies, and then later gave up tennis to become a golf instructor in his eighties and nineties. Gramps taught tennis to his only daughter, Mary Jane (David’s mother), and to his three oldest grandkids, Marnie, Mark, and John (David’s two brothers and sister).

It’s no wonder that when David was born the youngest child 8 ½ years after his next oldest sibling that time spent with family on a tennis court would soon follow…first as a ball boy and then as a player.

When David was just four years old, his mother tossed him his first tennis balls down at the local neighborhood courts. In the coming years those two public tennis courts would become known as the “Wheaton Memorial Courts” and be featured in Tennis Magazine.

In those early days, David wanted to hit only backhands. Why? Before David ever hit a tennis ball, he learned to ice skate when he was just two years old. He had already developed his left-handed slapshot in hockey that would become the foundation for his best shot in tennis–his backhand. No one could have known that he would excel so much at both hockey and tennis that he would have to choose one sport over the other ten years later.

Thus began an idyllic childhood: playing tennis with the family in the summer and spending day after day at the local outdoor hockey rink in the winter.

At age eight, David played his first tennis tournament at the club where his mom taught tennis in the summer. His competitive tennis career got off to a rather inauspicious start. In a draw of four boys under the age of 12, David beat his best friend in the semi-finals. In the final against a 12 year old (who would later become a high school tennis teammate), David lost the eight game pro-set match and promptly sat down at the back fence refusing to shake hands with his opponent and accept defeat. Competitive? Sore loser? You bet. It wasn’t until David’s best friend came out to the back of the court with a beloved Grape Crush soft drink that a handshake was negotiated.

By the very next year, David had become his section’s best 12 and under player and represented his section in the U.S. Nationals. From the time David was 11 until he finished his junior career at 18, he was consistently ranked in the top ten nationally, even attaining the number one ranking in the U.S. when he was 18.

But what about hockey? As David entered his teenage years, a conflict arose between the out of state national tennis tournaments and his traveling hockey team’s tournaments that both took place over Thanksgiving and Christmas vacations. Something had to give–a choice had to be made between tennis and hockey. David chose tennis because he “liked the individual aspect of tennis and had always assumed that I would be a touring tennis pro someday.” Quite an assumption for a 13 year old from Minnesota!

As he began to focus on tennis full time, David played number one singles for the Minnetonka High School varsity team when he was just a 7th grader. In 1984 as a 9th grader, he went on to become the youngest winner of the Minnesota State high school singles tournament.

Now finding good competition in Minnesota was becoming a problem. Halfway through his sophomore year of high school, the famous tennis coach from Florida, Nick Bollettieri, was in town doing a clinic. After seeing David hit a few balls at the clinic, Nick invited David to come down to his tennis academy for a free trial period. It was a very difficult decision for the family, but David felt it was an offer they couldn’t refuse. So at the age of 15 ½, David packed his bags and went to the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Bradenton, Florida. Immediately, David’s tennis improved in leaps and bounds due to the coaching, the competition with players such as Andre Agassi and Jim Courier, and the increased court time. Within months, David’s parents soon made the difficult choice to rent their beloved home on Lake Minnetonka and move to Florida to be with their son.

David finished his junior career in style winning the prestigious U.S. Open Junior Championships in 1987. He was not only the number one ranked American junior, but also one of the top juniors in the world. Now, another difficult decision needed to be made: should David go to college or turn professional? David had already dabbled in pro tennis and had some good results. He had barely lost a close three set match that summer in Washington D.C. to Ivan Lendl, the world’s top ranked player. Even though some of David’s peers like Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Jim Courier, and Michael Chang had decided to turn pro, David’s parents, who always had stressed the importance of education, encouraged him to attend college.

So it was on to Stanford for one year of study and college tennis. During that year, Dick Gould, the tennis coach at Stanford, transformed David into a serve and volley player. With David’s size and serving and volleying abilities, it was the right decision. Overcoming a delicate wrist surgery caused by putting his hand through a dorm window while on Rollerblades early in the school year, David worked his way up the lineup to eventually play number one singles and doubles for the Cardinal and lead them to the NCAA national team championship in 1988. He finished his year at Stanford an All American and was awarded the Block S award for Stanford’s most outstanding freshmen athlete. Shortly thereafter, David took the big step and jumped into the pro ranks. He officially turned professional on Independence Day, July 4, 1988.

Just like his first tournament back when he was eight years old, David’s pro career started inauspiciously. Coming out of the junior and college ranks as a highly touted prospect, David received several direct exemptions into the big pro events. His first summer on the pro tour was not successful and he found himself ranked 865 in the world by the fall of 1988. He would have to start at the bottom and work his way up.

And that’s exactly what he did. That same fall in 1988, he finished third on the Hawaiian satellite tour, which moved his ranking up to 440 at the end of 1988. He then went up a level to the Challenger circuit and won an event in Brazil in the spring of 1989, pushing his ranking up to 125. Now he was at a level where he could get directly in the main tour events, the first one being the Queen’s Club tournament in London. A week later he played his lifelong dream tournament, the Championships Wimbledon. At 20 years old, he had reached the “big league.”

Not satisfied with just arriving in the big time, David posted good results in the summer of 1989. He reached the semifinals of the Volvo Championships in Stratton Mountain, Vermont beating his former junior compatriots, Agassi and Courier along the way. As 1989 came to a close, David was ranked number 66 in the world and ready to make his mark on the biggest events in the game.

A very important meeting took place at an indoor tennis club late in 1989. Jerry Noyce, the president of a Minneapolis area athletic club chain and longtime friend and coach to all three Wheaton boys, gathered a few people together to form a support group for David’s tennis career. It was called “Team Wheaton.” Jerry and Mark Wheaton would share the coaching responsibilities, Sol Brandys, the strength and conditioning coach for the Minnesota Timberwolves, would get David in tip-top shape, and John Wheaton would serve as David’s manager. David’s brothers would split the traveling duties.

The results were immediate. In the first month of 1990, David reached his first career Grand Slam quarterfinal at the Australian Open falling to Stefan Edberg. In the spring, he won his first ATP Tour title at the U.S. Clay Courts in South Carolina. In the summer, David reached the round of 16 of Wimbledon and another quarterfinal at the U.S. Open. In the midst of his singles success, he made it to the final of doubles at the U.S. Open with Paul Annacone. David finished off the year by beating Ivan Lendl en route to a semi-final finish at the Grand Slam Cup in Munich, the game’s biggest prize money event. David’s meteoric rise up the world rankings put him at a 1990 year end ranking of number 28 in the world.

Simply put, 1991 was David’s best year on the professional tennis tour. Going into the Lipton tournament in Key Biscayne that year, David had played four tournaments and lost four times in the first round. Discouraged and confused, he had no idea that his play at the Lipton would be the start of his most memorable year. He fought through an early round match after being down match point and then went on to beat Stefan Edberg, the number one player at the time, to reach the final of the Lipton. Things were looking up.

Perhaps his most memorable moment in his career came on his favorite grass courts of Wimbledon only months later in the summer of 1991. After negotiating his way through difficult early round matches against Petr Korda, Cedric Pioline, and Ivan Lendl, David took on Andre Agassi in an epic five set match in the quarterfinals on Centre Court on the 4th of July. With his trademark stars and stripes headband, David fought back from two sets to one down to score a five set victory. In David’s first and only Grand Slam singles semi-final, Boris Becker used his vast Wimbledon experience to edge out David in three sets. A disappointing end, but overall a great tournament for David.

As a result of his good play in the Grand Slam events, David once again qualified for the year-ending Grand Slam Cup in Munich. His dream year concluded as he beat Michael Stich in the semis and Michael Chang in the final pocketing the largest payday in tennis history—two million dollars. 1991 saw a career high rank of number 12 and over 2 ½ million dollars in prize money…heady stuff for a kid from Minnesota.

David has always enjoyed playing on a team, from his youth hockey days to the tennis team at Stanford. In 1993, David achieved another goal by playing for the U.S. Davis Cup team against Australia. David went 1-1 in singles play, but unfortunately the U.S. team lost the tie.

As the mid-nineties rolled around, David continued to have success on the tour although not to the meteoric heights of the early nineties. In 1995, David nearly defended his 1994 Hall of Fame title on the grass courts of Newport losing a close final.

In the last half of the nineties, injuries started to come. David had an operation to remove a bone spur under his Achilles’ tendon in 1997 and then hurt the medial collateral ligament in his serving elbow in 1998. Serious injuries bog down a tennis career. Not only do they diminish one’s play when they occur, but they also take a player away from the rhythm and momentum of the game.

In the years 1999-2001, David had recovered from both injuries and was holding his own on Tour, but couldn’t quite make significant enough progress climbing the world ranking ladder again. He did enjoy reaching the final of the World Team Tennis league for the Springfield (MO) Lasers in the summer of 2001. As 2001 drew to a close, David decided it was time, after 13 memorable years on Tour, to begin transitioning to a career after professional tennis. While desiring to still stay involved in tennis in the future, he would like to begin a career in speaking, writing, and radio.

Now in his mid-thirties, David summed up his tennis career this way, “Tennis has had an immeasurable impact on my life. What an experience to travel all over the world playing in the biggest events, making new friends and learning about different cultures. But even more importantly, God has used both the success and the trials of my tennis career as a vehicle for inner and outer change in my life. I am positive I would not be the same person if I had never picked up a tennis racket. I hope I can pass on some of the lessons I have learned to others. I also know I couldn’t have done it alone: God gave me the ability, a dedicated family, and many other friends who selflessly poured their time and efforts into me. To all of them I am eternally thankful.” (Copyright 2015)