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Rafael Nadal: ‘I Have My Own Style’

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Rafael Nadal (image via AFP)

Nine-time French Open champion Rafael Nadal has dismissed suggestions that he should either change or adapt his game to remain more competitive on the tour.

 

The world No.5 has endured a turbulent year on the tour with a series of disappointing performances in the major events. In the four Grand Slam tournaments he failed to reach the semifinals in all of them for the first time since 2004 and slid down to 10th in the world back in June. Despite the setbacks, the 29-year-old has remained focused and ended the year on a high by reaching the semi-finals of the ATP World Tour Finals.

At the age of 29, Nadal has been asked if he will follow in the footsteps of Roger Federer and adjust his playing style to maintain his longevity at the top of the tour. The Swiss player has noticeably added some new techniques to his game. One the techniques is the newly-named SABR, when he quickly moves deep inside the baseline to aggressively return a player’s serve. Despite the adjustments made by the 17-time Grand Slam champion, Nadal has insisted that he will not be following in his footsteps.

“I’m not Federer, I’m Rafael Nadal. He has his style and I have my own style,” Nadal told AFP.
 “I for sure try to improve many things during all my career and for sure I’m working hard to be a better player. And if I am a better player for sure I will have the chance to play a bit longer.”

The Spaniard is currently in the Philippines for the IPTL. Yesterday he helped the Indian Aces to a comprehensive 30-18 win over the UAE Royals. Despite being ranked fifth in the world, Nadal is currently 11,355 points behind world No.1 Novak Djokovic. The last time Nadal was world No.1 was at the start of July in 2014. Speaking about potentially returning back to the top of the rankings, an unsure Nadal remained coy about his prospects.

“I don’t know if I’m going to win it back, I’m working hard to create opportunities to compete for the best tournaments and I’m working so hard to try to make that happen.” The world No.5 said.

Despite his uncertainty regarding reclaiming the world No.1 position, Nadal has recently stated that he is still motivated to succeed in the sport. He will start his 2016 season in the Middle East at the Qatar ExxonMobil Open. Nadal won the event in 2014 and will be the second seed in the 2016 edition behind Novak Djokovic.

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EXCLUSIVE: Brian Vahaly on coming to terms with his sexuality, dealing with hate and making tennis inclusive

When former world No.64 Brian Vahaly spoke openly about being gay in a podcast in 2017 he received over 1000 hate messages which included threats to take his children away. Yet he is resilient and hopes his journey to acceptance is one others will be inspired by.

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America’s Brian Vahaly might have never won an ATP Tour title during his career but many consider him as a trailblazer in the world of tennis.

 

As a youngster the American showed immense promise on the junior Tour when he captured the Easter Bowl 18s title and broke into the world’s top 20. Following his success, Vahaly didn’t transition immediately to the Pro circuit and instead played college tennis in order to get his degree first. An approach which wasn’t as common back in the late 1990s as it is now. Representing the University of Virginia he earned All-American honours and reached the final of the prestigious NCAA championships whilst unseeded.

As a professional Vahaly peaked at a ranking high of 64th in the world and won five Challenger titles. During his career he played the likes of Michael Chang, Andre Agassi, Juan Carlos Ferrero, Lleyton Hewitt, Carlos Moya and Gustavo Kurten.

Towards the end of his career, injury started to hinder his performance on the Tour. The former college sports star retired in 2006 at the age of 27 but it was 11 years after that when he first spoke openly about being gay in a podcast. A courageous move Vahaly hopes will inspire others despite some of the negativity he received. He tells UbiTennis that following the podcast he shockingly received more than 1000 hate messages. In the Open Era there has never been an openly gay player participating in a Grand Slam tournament.

Now serving on the board of directors and thriving in the world of business, Vahaly speaks to UbiTennis about his journey to acceptance, making men’s tennis more welcoming to LGBT players, coping with his mental health as a player and many more topics.

Life as a player

UBITENNIS: You are a former world No.64 player who won five Challenger titles and played in seven Grand Slam main draws. What is the best memory of your career?

VAHALY: I think about it in a couple different ways. First, I was able to compete against Michael Chang, who was sort of my childhood role model. Being able to beat him was a personal achievement.

Secondly, reaching the quarter-finals of Indian Wells back in 2003 where I beat Juan Carlo Ferrero [who would have become world N.1 for eight weeks later that year], Fernando Gonzalez and Tommy Robredo. That was a big moment for me in my career.

UBITENNIS: Before you started life on the ATP Tour, you were also a regular on the college circuit.

VAHALY: I played at the University of Virginia and I was there for four years. I got my college degree and back then not a lot of college graduates were going on to the ATP Tour. There were only just a few. So I was proud at the time to be the only college graduate in the top 100. That has since changed considerably with John Isner and Steve Johnson among others. So it’s exciting to see more people going via the college route. For me personally getting my education (first) was very important to me.

Coming to terms with his sexuality

UBITENNIS: Towards the end of your career you suffered from injury and previously said you needed to be away from the sport in order to deal with issues concerning your personal life. Why did you feel the need to leave the sport completely in order to address your personal issues?

VAHALY: It was a rotator cuff issue and I had a bunch of surgeries. At that time most careers were done by the time players reached their late 20s. Obviously a lot has changed with some of my peers still playing when I thought it was time to exit.

I started to come to terms with my sexuality, and I was trying to understand who I am. I just didn’t feel safe or included in the sports field. More specifically tennis, it was a very conservative environment. So for me, when I stopped playing I very much disappeared from my friends, my tennis world and even my family a little bit. That way I could figure out more about myself and what I wanted. It’s a self-exploration process for sure and at the time I didn’t feel like tennis was a safe enough space for me to do that.

UBITENNIS: You said tennis was a very conservative environment for you. What do you mean by this?

VAHALY: There were a lot of homophobic jokes made on Tour. It’s a very masculine and competitive environment. You don’t see a lot of gay representation, except for the women’s Tour. With me not having the personality of an outspoken advocate (for LGBT issues), certainly not in my twenties, I needed some time to understand myself. To me, in tennis I didn’t feel like there was anybody to talk to or anybody that was going through anything similar.

UBITENNIS: Do you ever wonder how different your career might have been if you publicly came out whilst still playing?

VAHALY: I don’t allow myself to think about it because I don’t want to think about ‘what if’. I do wonder if I would have been able to play more freely and maybe the quality of my tennis would have improved. But I do know during that time in the 2000s I would have felt very uncomfortable travelling internationally. There were certain countries which used to be very unwelcoming towards gay people in general.

To me there was a risk component to coming out, as well as a financial fear. How would sponsorships respond? You sort of don’t know what you don’t know. When you worked 25 years as a tennis player it was just a risk I wasn’t willing to take.

“People were telling me they knew where I live and they were coming to take my children away”

UBITENNIS: Nowadays there is a lot of talk about mental health concerning players such as Naomi Osaka. 15 years ago these discussions weren’t as prominent, so how did managed to cope personally with life on the Tour?

VAHALY: When I was on the Tour I had a sports psychologist, a woman called Alexis Castorri.  She has worked with a lot of Grand Slam champions. She was really influential for me in terms of getting the most out of my tennis career and after I finished competing. Helping my transition from the Tour and coming to terms with my sexuality.

Mental health is critical to me. I’ve had a psychologist now for 19 years. I continue to do it (use these services) and I will always have tremendous support for anybody who wants to prioritise that aspect of their life.

UBITENNIS: It was back in 2017 when you spoke publicly about your sexuality for the first time. Were you expecting the kind of reaction you received?

VAHALY: I knew it was important for me to speak my truth when given the opportunity. I just wanted to say it and move on a little bit. I didn’t foresee myself being an advocate. But I didn’t want to feel like I was hiding and there was a part of me, even though I was already married, felt like I was hiding from the sports world. That was a process for me.

After having kids, it changed the way I thought about everything and I felt I needed to step up in a way. I’m very much an introvert, so I was quite happy living a very private life but kids have a way of changing your priorities.

UBITENNIS: Ever since you have opened up about your sexuality, have you heard from any other athletes seeking help or advice?

VAHALY: There has been no word from tennis players, which is fine. I certainly did hear from people that I grew up playing college and junior tennis with. But not on the Pro Tour.

After the podcast came out I got quite a significant amount of negative e-mails. Probably a little over 1000 messages from people who were very disgusted by the fact two men were having children (together). A lot of really strong hate came in my direction. Where I was fortunate is that I came out later in life and I was well prepared for that kind of hate so it didn’t necessarily impact me the same way.

When people were telling me they knew where I live and they were coming to take my children away, it was a little scary. My experience was not entirely filled with warm and fuzzy acceptance.

I have to be understanding that there is a significant part of the United States and the world who do not believe it is acceptable the way my family lives. I have to be OK with that. Part of what sports prepare you for is adversity and dealing with people who are tough.

ATP far from perfect when it comes to LGBT inclusivity

UBITENNIS: On the ATP Tour there are no openly LGBT members which may or may not be a coincidence. Do you feel the men’s Tour needs to do more to make the sport more welcoming?

VAHALY: If you look at what the NFL and NBA is doing compared to what the ATP is doing – it’s not really the same. One of the reasons why I serve on the board of directors on the USTA is to change the US Open. How can we have a Pride day? How can we have events and visibly show we support it? The USTA and US Open have taken some great strides over the last two years.

I do believe the ATP, certainly as the governing body of men’s professional tennis, if they were more open and accepting in their messaging, it would help. At this stage they have chosen not to do that.

I will say that the Australian Open has done an exceptional job and I hope that continues to expand. I’m not looking to go into these environments and preach, I’m just trying to promote visibility and acceptance so LGBT people feel that they can join the sport.

UBITENNIS: When it comes to LGBT sports the big story in recent days has been NFL player Carl Nassib coming out. How important is it?

VAHALY: They (NFL and tennis) are different sports but I think it helps. NFL in the United States is one of the most macho sports out there. Seeing how the fans and teams react is really important.

I thought Carl handled it very well. He posted about it (coming out) and moved on. It doesn’t need to be a big topic of conversation. I believe this as well, which is why I went with the podcast.

That just continues to change hearts and minds around the country. When people can see them (gay athletes) out there competing, just as tough and just as successful in the athletics sphere. It (change of views) happens slowly but I think certainly all athletes are paying attention to acceptance levels and the reactions of your teammates.

Advice to others and what the future holds

UBITENNIS: Given all that you have been through. What advice would you give to somebody else who may be going through what you once experience?

VAHALY: Find somebody to talk to, somebody you trust. Know that people like us are there if you have questions. It’s just nice to have somebody to talk to who can help you learn about yourself. What I try to do is in terms of putting my family forward is that we live a pretty ‘normal life.’ I have two kids, I have a house and I walked my kids to preschool this morning. It doesn’t have to be such a defining characteristic of who you are. In the sports world, it feels that it is magnified, but what I want to show is that you can have a great athletic career, meet somebody and have a family no matter your sexuality.

UBITENNIS: So now you’re have been retired from the Tour for a few years, would you consider returning in the form of a coach or mentor if an opportunity arises?

VAHALY: I honestly don’t think I would be a great coach. I am pretty good at strategy but as it relates to technique and mechanics. It’s just not my skill set. I have moved into the business world and I like it. I have had some great success with life outside of tennis.

Also, I don’t know if travel would appeal to me any more. It worked as a single guy in his twenties but in a family with kids I want to spend time at home raising my boys.

If I can be helpful to athletes by giving my input on mental toughness, strategy and things I feel that I excelled at which got me to a high level (as a tennis player). I am always happy to share my point of view.

UBITENNIS: So what have you learned as a tennis player which has helped you in the world of business?

VAHALY: I love tennis and what it taught me in terms of dealing with defeat, victory, changing strategies, different variables and crisis management. What it has done for me is that I am very competitive in the working world but I also have very good intuition and decision making skills. I have found that transitioning into the work environment from sport, that some people are a lot smarter than I am but they are using the wrong pieces of information to make a decision. I credit all my business success to the traits I learned on the tennis court.

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Vahaly now lives in Washington with his husband Bill Jones and they are parents of two twin boys. He currently is the Chief Executive Officer of Youfit Health Clubs.

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Dominic Thiem Vows ‘To Come Back Stronger’ Following Wrist injury Diagnosis

The 27-year-old is out of Wimbledon and it is unknown as to when he will return to the Tour.

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Dominic Thiem will be sidelined from the Tour for ‘several weeks’ after undergoing tests on his wrist in Spain.

 

The world No.5 retired during his first round match at the Mallorca Open earlier this week after hearing what he described as a ‘crack’ in his wrist. Since then he has travelled to Barcelona to undergo an assessment which found a ‘detachment of the posterior sheath of the ulnar side of the right wrist.’ In a press release issued on Thiem’s social media account, he confirmed he will be wearing a splint for five weeks and will therefore miss Wimbledon, as well as tournaments in Hamburg and Gstaad.

“I’m going to do everything the doctors say in order to recover as quickly as possible. They’ve informed me that I might be out for several weeks, but I will do my best to be back on court soon”, said Thiem. “I’m really sorry for pulling out of the upcoming three tournaments I had in my calendar: Wimbledon, Hamburg and Gstaad. They are very important tournaments for me. I appreciate all the support from the fans in these difficult moments – I’m determined to come back stronger.”

Thiem will be under the supervision of renowned doctor Angel Ruiz Cotorro who is best known for his treatment of Rafael Nadal. He will undergo subsequent tests over the coming weeks which will provide an indication of when he will be ready to return to competitive tennis. As part of the recovery plan the 27-year-old will go through ‘functional rehabilitation’ after having his splint removed before he returns to training on the court.

The setback is the latest blow for the US Open champion during what has been a difficult season. Thiem has only managed to win back-to-back matches in one out of his past six tournaments played. At the French Open he suffered a shock first round loss in what was his earliest ever exit at the tournament. Prior to the clay swing, Thiem took a brief break from the Tour in order to ‘reset’ following the impact of winning his first Grand Slam title.

It is hoped that the Austrian will be fit in time for his title defence at the US Open. The North American hardcourt swing starts in Atlanta during the last week of July with Flushing Meadows commencing on August 30th.

Thiem has won 17 ATP titles and earned more than $28m in prize money so far in his career.

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PTPA Outline Vision After Appointing Executive Director And Advisory Board

The PTPA has announced a new executive director and advisory board.

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The Professional Tennis Players Association has outlined their vision for the future after appointing an advisory board and an executive director.

 

Vasek Pospisil made the announcement last night as he and Novak Djokovic look to secure a legitimate players voice at the tennis political table.

In the main core of the statement they announced the make-up of the PTPA’s backroom board, “PTPA co-founders Vasek Pospisil and Novak Djokovic have named Adam Larry executive director, enlisted Carrie Gerlach Cecil to lead Brand and Communications and appointed Bill Ackman, Michael Hirshfeld, Rebecca Macdonald, Katarina Pijetlovic and Anton Rabie to its Advisory Board,” the statement read.

“Created by the players for the players, the PTPA is an integrated association for professional tennis players. The PTPA movement is uniting and mobilizing tennis players in order to create transparency and fairness throughout decision-making in professional tennis.”

The move is an interesting one as up until now it was a mystery as to what the PTPA’s strategy was and who was involved so far with there being no idea from the ATP or WTA’s side what the PTPA was trying to achieve.

Now there is an advisory board there may be sharp movement and progress made into how the PTPA can secure more player-related decisions in Tennis and ensure that there is a level playing-field in terms of decisions affecting the players.

In the statement Vasek Pospisil, Novak Djokovic and new executive director Adam Larry all gave strong hints about the PTPA’s future vision as they look to challenge the establishment in providing change for tennis.

“With the establishment of our advisory board, our branding and communications team and the appointment of Adam Larry as executive director, we have taken one step closer to toward our goal of facilitating a fair and sustainable competitive environment for tennis players today, and for generations to come,” Pospisil said.

“We are working toward growth to help all players, not just the top 100, to make sustainable livelihoods and have their rights protected on and off the court. From top to bottom, we must use our collective voices to help players today and tomorrow,” stated world number one Novak Djokovic.

“The PTPA wants to work with all of the tennis governing bodies to inspire collective reform to better the sport,” new executive director Adam Larry claimed.

What comes next for the PTPA nobody knows but this new board means that business is expected to pick up very quickly in the latest twist in the political tennis game.

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