American Brian Vahale has never won an ATP title during his career, but many consider him a pioneer in the tennis world.. As a young man, he established himself as one of the brightest budding ring promises by winning the Easter Prize and reaching the top 20 in the world. After these successes, Vahaly did not move immediately to the main ring but chose to play in college and graduate, an approach that was not popular in the late 1990s, unlike what is happening now. Representing Virginia, he also reached the final of the NCAA Championship as an Unranked.
As a professional, Vahaly achieved the best ATP rating of 64 and won five Challenger titles. During his career, he faced players such as Michel Chang, Andre Agassi, Juan Carlos Ferrero, Lleyton Hewitt, Carlos Moya and Gustavo Kuerten. Towards the end of his career, injuries began to hamper his performance on the ring. Brian retired in 2006 at the age of 27 and 11 After that, he first said he was gay on a podcast. A bold move that, despite all the negativity he has received, will inspire others. Brian told Ubitennis.net that he then received over 1,000 hate messages on the podcast. There has never been an openly gay tennis player in the Open Era who has competed in a Grand Slam tournament.
Today, Vahali lives in Washington with her husband, Bill Jones. The couple has twins. He is currently the CEO of Yofit Health Clubs, H I decided to talk to Ubitennis about the path to accepting the truth that tennis should do to be more inclusive towards LGBTQ players, managing his mental health as a player and many other topics.
I was ranked 64 in the world, won five competitors and played seven Grand Slam tournaments. What is the best memory of your career?
I think I can give two answers. It was a magical moment when I beat Michelle Chang, my idol. The second was the 2003 Indian Wells Championship, when I beat Juan Carlos Ferrero (soon to be world number one), Fernando Gonzalez and Tommy Robredo. That was a great moment in my career.
Before you came to the ATP circuit, you played a lot in the US college championships.
I’ve been playing for Virginia for four years. I graduated at a time when not many college athletes made it onto the ATP circuit. Things have changed from John Isner and Steve Johnson onwards. It’s good now to see that many college educated players manage to turn pro. Personally, education was very important to me.
Towards the end of your career you had an injury and you said earlier that you need to take some time away from tennis to manage matters related to your personal life. Why did you feel the need to leave the camps to take care of personal matters?
I had a rotator cuff problem and had the operation done several times. At that time, few players managed to maintain their competitive edge when they reached the age of thirty. That’s also why I started thinking about quitting, even if things changed later. I started accepting my sexuality by trying to understand who I really was. I didn’t feel integrated or accepted into the sport I loved. More specifically, it was a very conservative environment. So when I stopped playing it was gone for a while. This way I was able to think better about some things about myself and what I really want. It was a process of self-discovery and at the time I thought I could do better outside of tennis.
You said tennis was a very conservative environment. What do you mean by this?
There were a lot of anti-gay jokes on the tour. It is a very chauvinistic and competitive circuit. There is no representation for gays, unlike the female circle. Certainly when I was young I didn’t have a great figure and I needed to understand myself as much as possible, and I felt that in tennis there is no one to talk to and no one goes through something like that.
Have you ever wondered if your career might be different if you went out while active in the ring?
I don’t like to think “what would it be like if”. But I wonder if the quality of my game would benefit if I was more mentally free. However, I know that during the 2000s I would not have felt comfortable traveling the world. Some countries are still very hostile towards gays. However, there was an element of risk in the prospect of an exit, even from an economic point of view. How will the sponsors react? One cannot know. These are risks you wouldn’t want to take if you spent 25 years working as a tennis player.
Today there is a lot of talk about the mental health of players as well in relation to famous issues such as the case of Naomi Osaka. Fifteen years ago these discussions weren’t heated, so how did you manage your life on the tour?
When I was in the ring I had a sports psychologist, a woman named Alexis Castori. It has made a huge impact on me both trying to get the most out of my career and once it stopped helping me deal with my sexuality. Mental health is a primary issue for me. I have been followed by a psychiatrist for 19 years, and I will always support those who prioritize this aspect.
In 2017, you spoke publicly about your sexual orientation for the first time. Did you expect this kind of reaction?
I knew it would be important for me to talk about it openly as soon as I had the chance. I just wanted to say it once and for all. I didn’t expect to be an advocate for this cause. But I didn’t want to feel like I was in hiding, even though I was already married. After having kids, the way of thinking about everything changed and I thought I had to somehow progress. I’m very introverted, so I’m really concerned about my privacy, but having kids changes things for you.
Has any player asked you for help or advice since you exposed yourself?
I haven’t heard from anyone on the professional tennis circuit. Someone I grew up with in college tennis, yes, but nobody from the pro circuit. After that podcast I came out with, I got a huge amount of bad emails. Probably more than 1,000 messages from people disgusted that two men were raising children together. I received a lot of hate, but took advantage of the fact that I was already at a certain age, I was psychologically prepared, and therefore all this did not have much effect on me. But when people told me that they knew where I lived and that they would come and take the kids away, it was scary. In short, my whole experience was not easy. I must accept that there is a good part of the United States, and the rest of the world does not believe that the way the family lives is acceptable. But sports taught me to control adversity.
There are still no LGBTQ members in the ATP circle, which may or may not be a coincidence. Do you think men’s tennis needs to do more to become a more open environment?
If you look at what they do in the NFL and NBA compared to what they do in ATP, there are differences. One of the reasons I am now sitting on the USTA board is to try to change the US Open for this. How do we organize pride? How can we organize similar events? Both the USTA and the US Open have made excellent strides over the past two years. I think the ATP could help if he had a more open mind. For now they have decided not to. I would say the Australian Open is doing a great job in that regard and I hope it continues that way. I don’t want to give a lecture, but I try to foster a more open mindset so that LGBT people understand that they, too, can be a part of the sport.
American football player Karl Nesib recently came out. How important is that?
The NFL is one thing and tennis is another, but I still think it’s something that helps. After all, American football is one of the sports in which masculinity most dominates. It is very important to see the reaction of the fans and the players. I think Karl handled the situation well. I think it’s not even something that should be discussed much. I hope fans understand this when they see a gay compete just like everyone else. It will take a long time to change the mentality, but it is important to see that such important athletes are paying attention to this issue.
Given what I’ve been through, what advice would you give someone who might be going through the same experience you did?
Find someone to talk to, someone you trust. Know that there are people out there like us if you have any questions. It’s good to have someone to talk to who can help you learn something about yourself. What I do is try to have a normal life. I have a house and two kids, and I take them to school in the morning. Speaking of sports, I would like to point out that you can have a great career as an athlete and have a family regardless of your sexual orientation.
Now that you’ve retired from the tour for a few years, would you consider returning as a coach or as an insider if that happens?
I honestly don’t think I would be a good coach. I’m very good at explaining the technique and mechanics of my shots, but that’s it. I’ve moved into business and I love it. I’ve had some great successes in my life outside of tennis. Besides, I don’t think I want to travel much anymore. I did really well when I was single and in my twenties, but now I’m a family man and I enjoy spending time at home with my kids. Of course, I would be happy if I could help some guys by helping the athletes with their mental strength.
What have you learned in your tennis career that has helped you in your career?
I love tennis and what it taught me about managing defeat and winning and playing strategy. Thanks to this I am now able to compete in the business sector and have developed my skills in good intuition and good decision making. Working outside of tennis, I’ve come to realize that there are many people out there who are smarter than me but misuse the information they have in making a decision. Everything I’ve achieved in business I owe to what I learned on the tennis court.
Translated by Gianluca Sartori