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Grace, Measured in Dog Years

With no on-court coaching, no team structure and no possibility of even spending his final years as a role player, tennis players are extremely self-reliant, autonomous and guarded to paranoiac heights.
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All through his youth and early adulthood, David Wheaton built his identity in tennis, a savagely self-reliant sport. As a pro, Wheaton was a heavyweight contender, his career highlighted by a run to the Wimbledon semifinals, a ranking of number 12 in the world and victories over such Hall of Famers as Andre Agassi and Jimmy Connors.

It would have been easy for Wheaton to parlay the equity he accrued as a player and build a second career that continued in tennis. As a coach, as a broadcaster, as a guest legend instructor at corporate events; each of these paths was plausible.

But Wheaton chose a different route, a journey focused heavily on his deep faith. He is the host of The Christian Worldview, a nationally-syndicated radio program. He's also been a frequent speaker and author of two books, University of Destruction and, most recently, My Boy, Ben: A Story of Love, Loss and Grace.

In some ways, Wheaton's latest book is a familiar tale, of a man and his dog. But Wheaton takes it further, finding significant spiritual depth, in large part not just in Ben's life but even more powerfully through his death.

Ben entered Wheaton's life at a key phase. With his tennis career closer to midnight than dawn, Wheaton wondered what was to come next, particularly in the wake of a first round loss at Wimbledon in 1998 -- a defeat that would prove to be his final main draw match at tennis' most iconic venue. That same day, thousands of miles away in Elkader, Iowa, a yellow Lab was born who would greatly enhance Wheaton's life in ways he'd never imagined.

Wheaton at this time was 29 years old. In most jobs, 29 is an age when apprenticeship begins the transition to expertise. But in sports, 29 is old, supporting the claim from a Wheaton rival, Boris Becker, that tennis years are, ironically enough given Wheaton's subject, best viewed as dog years.

Pause for a moment here and ponder the nuances of life not just as a professional athlete but specifically as a tennis player. In one sense, tennis is about as singular as a sport gets. Every other player is a possible opponent, a potential antagonist in the game's zero-sum quest to conquer real estate. With no on-court coaching, no team structure and no possibility of even spending his final years as a role player, tennis players are extremely self-reliant, autonomous and guarded to paranoiac heights.

But at the same time, in tennis, the opponents are connected to one another, engaged in a racquet-wielding dialogue. In this sense, tennis is also a relationship sport, two players forming a one-on-one intimacy with a language beyond words, a connection that's at once powerful but also limited. But believe this: Whenever Wheaton and such lifelong rivals of his as Agassi, Pete Sampras, Michael Chang, Todd Martin and MaliVai Washington see one another, they will feel a certain spark based on all the hours they spent engaged in the intimacy of competition.

Yet perhaps it was the ability to engage that gives this book its resonance. While much of the early part of the book explains how Wheaton grew to love Ben as a companion for everything from hunting to walking to training, he's also aware of something much deeper. As Wheaton writes, "But there is another fundamental reason why I loved Ben. It goes down to one of the deepest and most basic human needs and desires, and that is relationship. I had come to understand this in a more spiritual way in my early twenties when I became a Christian and read in the Bible that God designed men and women not to be lone rangers, but rather to be in relationship with other living beings -- with God, with humans, even with animals."

In other words, thanks to Ben, Wheaton learned to be something other than a tennis player, to savor connection, be it when hunting, walking or merely resting at home. But tragically, at a fairly early stage in the book, Wheaton faces Ben's death nearly nine years after his birth: "Benjamin, the son of my right hand, was now the son of my sorrow."

For someone as guarded, isolated and autonomous as a tennis player, every interaction is conditional. But with Ben, Wheaton was able to experience unconditional love, a surrender that allowed him to let down the guard he had built for so long and so well. Through Biblical passages, through interactions with his family (most of all, his thoughtful mother) and others, through activities as simple as a walk, Wheaton finds himself seeing Ben's gift as one of love in both life and death.

Fittingly enough, Ben had died during Easter Week. As many around him marked the resurrection, a disconsolate Wheaton found hope: "Contrary winds were blowing me toward desolate islands of depression and bitterness. Thank God I was being offered a lifeline." How Wheaton rebuilt himself in the wake of such a crushing loss is a perfect fit for the book title's final word. Across time and tennis, love and loss, joy and sorrow, Wheaton has crafted a tale of grace.

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