enjoy your post-tennis life, Brian
thanks for your Indian Wells 2003 apperance, man
Vahaly retires on his own terms
The phrase student-athlete gets thrown around rather loosely in our society these days. While covering sports for three decades, this columnist has interviewed some “student-athletes” that couldn’t spell ‘cat’ if you spotted them the ‘a’ and the ‘t.’
Not so with tennis star Brian Vahaly, one of the greatest ambassadors of the University of Virginia and the true definition of a student-athlete. Until recently, Vahaly was UVa’s lone representative on the men’s ATP Tour.
Unfortunately, a lingering shoulder injury that required three separate surgeries over an 18-month span, has forced the 28-year-old pro into retirement. When doctors recommended yet another operation to repair a tear — which would require 12 to 24 months of recuperation — Vahaly decided it was time to switch gears.
“That’s why you get your UVa degree — to move on to the next phase of your life,” Vahaly said Saturday from his hometown of Atlanta, where he has accepted a position in private wealth management with his long-time friend and financial advisor, Todd Kennedy, of UBS Financial Services.
Wahoo fans will remember Vahaly as the player who got Virginia men’s tennis kick-started as a three-time All-American from 1999 to 2001. He reached the NCAA Singles Tournament finals in ‘01, falling to Georgia’s Matias Boeker, and also reached the semifinals in doubles with partner Huntley Montgomery, of Charlottesville, in that same tournament.
Since then, he enjoyed the most successful pro tennis career of any Cavalier, reaching a high of No. 57 world singles ranking in 2003, when he was the only player ranked in the top 100 of the ATP Tour with a college degree.
“Playing pro tennis was a childhood dream, absolutely,” Vahaly said. “And it always felt like a dream. There’s such a low likelihood of making it to that level. Playing collegiately at Virginia was a big deal for me and it really helped me prepare for what was ahead, both in tennis and in life.”
Moving from the college to pro level in the sport is more challenging than most athletes realize. That’s where the student part comes in handy.
A different game
“So many guys who beat me badly in college never made it at the professional level,” Vahaly said. “A lot of guys out there have a hard time staying focused mentally for an extended period of time. A lot of talented players struggle to feel comfortable on the Tour — struggle getting on planes, traveling, handling being alone, facing adversity with no one there with you, having to compete at a high level every day.”
“The pro tour is a completely separate beast,” he added. “I had to study it to see how to be successful, and although I took some lumps the first year, I attribute my education at Virginia challenging my mind as a big part of my success. The ATP Tour was the most challenging thing I could ever experience. It’s a roller-coaster ride with a range of happiness and joy to sadness and misery.”
One of the things Vahaly had to figure out early on was how to keep a balance in his life while on tour. Certainly it was important to work hard and to remain in great physical shape, but there was more.
He found it was equally important to stay connected, to have friends come to tournaments, to read and continue to educate his mind as a distraction from the grind of the pro tennis circuit. On the court, it’s 100 percent tennis, but off the court is where a lot of players stumble.
That’s why every time Vahaly would visit a city, particularly a new one, he would see the attractions, gain a sense of its culture, meet some locals.
He was also wise to watch the best players and learn from them, ask them to practice with him and pick their brains.
“You have to be very humble with players and coaches in order to get better,” he said. “No matter how good you were in college, you have to be humble to a point and rely on people with more experience.”
Vahaly struck up a relationship with Andy Roddick and drew from his experience and skills, not only from the tennis perspective but also the lifestyle.
“One of the biggest challenges is being on the road 42 weeks a year, living in hotels, being alone,” Vahaly said. “That’s where players can get a little crazy. People see it as a glamorous sport, but it is very mentally taxing.”
Not being a big guy (6-foot, 180 pounds), and minus a big serve and a big forehand, all classic essentials in pro tennis, Vahaly often beat people with his brains and persistence. He attacked with relentless passion that often paid dividends.
Such as the week in 2003, his best year on tour and prior to his shoulder problems, when he shocked the tennis world, beating three of the world’s Top 10 ranked opponents in a week at Indian Wells. In succession, he knocked off Fernando Gonzalez, Juan Carlos Ferrero (then ranked No. 1 in the world) and Tommy Robredo.
“That whole week was one big blessing of fortune,” Vahaly recalled. “Three of the biggest wins of my life in a row was one of those weeks I will never forget, a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
Not long after that, People Magazine listed Vahaly as one of its 25 Most Eligible Bachelors.
“That was wild and crazy,” he said. “I was getting a ton of letters and fan mail, which put me in a different class. I don’t know if I realized it at the time, but more people were coming to my matches and taking a personal interest in my short. I did get more attention in my life, which is what I needed and enjoyed having. It was a fun life to be in your mid-20s.”
He played doubles alongside Roddick, played in all the Grand Slam events and did quite well at Wimbledon — something he was aware of even at age four, when he first picked up a racket. Representing the U.S. on the Davis Cup team was also quite a thrill.
Then came shoulder problems in late ‘05 and early ‘06.
Pro tennis requires an athlete to play multiple matches in a row and Vahaly worked hard to earn every ranking point, every dollar of his career. After a while it took a toll on his body.
He found he could win the first match without too much stress, but by the end of the week, his shoulder completely locked up.
“Too many overheads, too many serves, and you’re out for a couple of days,” Vahaly said.
That made it difficult to train properly and forced him to play through pain as he attempted to avoid surgery until he couldn’t delay the inevitable.
Having always had balance in his life through his UVa fraternity, church, his community and tennis, Vahaly decided to start a foundation (in 2003) — the Brian Vahaly Brighter Future Foundation in Atlanta, which provides after-school opportunities through the Boys & Girls Club and stresses academics and athletics, supplying computers and tutors along with athletic training.
He and his family have also been active in the St. Vincent de Paul Society, which helps the homeless.
All the while he was in pro tennis, he never passed up an opportunity to talk about UVa.
“Charlottesville is such a great tennis town, and a lot of credit should go to Brian Boland and his staff for what they have accomplished,” said Vahaly, who remains close to the Cavaliers’ program. “What Somdev [Devvarman] is doing on the court right now is unbelievable. It has been great getting to know the guys on the team.”
Vahaly said he exchanges text messages with Devvarman regularly, offering tips, which keeps him connected to the game he so loves.
“UVa was four of the favorite years of my life, so I like to remain involved,” Vahaly said. “I’m extremely proud to be associated with the No. 1 program in the country. To think that I might have helped get it started is a huge honor for me.”
Now that’s a student-athlete.