Boris Becker and Justine Henin: “Off-court pressure might have made Djokovic lose his cool” - UBITENNIS
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Boris Becker and Justine Henin: “Off-court pressure might have made Djokovic lose his cool”

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Eurosport invited UbiTennis’s CEO Ubaldo Scanagatta to join a Q&A with the former Slam champions and world numbers ones, who dicussed the 2020 US Open (but refused to pick a winner for either draw).

 

Justine Henin and Boris Becker need no introduction: seven Slam titles and three years finished as the world N.1 for the 38-year-old Belgian, six and one for the German, now 52 (he was never actually ranked at the top at the end of a season, but won the ATP Player of the Year award in 1989, when he won two Majors). They are definitely cognizant of what it takes and means to get to the end of a US Open fortnight (Henin won it twice, Becker once), although the 2020 milieu is a bona fide unknown for pretty much everybody in tennis. 

This is why they have accepted to join a Q&A session of about half an hour, organised by Eurosport (the channel that they both work for, and that we thank once again for the invite), during which they tackled many subjects, mostly revolving around Novak Djokovic, his default loss at the hands of Pablo Carreno Busta, and the future of the PTPA, his new players’ union – Becker coached the Serbian for three seasons (winning six Slams).

Here’s the full transcript:

D: We are almost at the end of the tournament, and we have seen many controversial decisions. What will be the most important lesson to be taken for the rest of the season?
HENIN: I don’t know, it’s an interesting question. We are all wondering how we feel about this tournament. I’m glad that it took place despite the absence of the fans, who can still watch on TV, while the players can still do their jobs and are fully aware of the situation. What we can learn is that this is a unique situation fo everyone. We need to remember that nobody is perfect and that these are exceptional circumstances, but we all need to adapt – players, officials, tournaments, everybody. Our job is about adapting, so I think it’s normal to have witnessed all these ups-and-downs. Anyway, we also need to keep in mind that we are only talking about tennis, which gives us great emotions but is not the most important thing right now. The tournament hasn’t been perfect, but it’s a good start, everyone is okay, and we all need to learn our own lessons.  

Q: I was at the O2 when Djokovic was booed for double faulting, and we are talking about someone who has won 17 Slams. Does he get the respect he deserves?
BECKER: I don’t think so, it’s a very good point. In men’s tennis, fans are divided between Federer and Nadal. And then here comes Djokovic who crashes the party – this is why he gets so much criticism. Right now, he is in a s**tstorm because of what he did against Carreno, but he took responsibility for his actions and apologised, firstly to the woman, then to the USTA and to the players. Nobody is perfect. Roger double faults, Rafa double faults, they don’t get booed. 

Q: How does he take it?
BECKER: He doesn’t like it, nobody would. He’s a people person, he does a lot of charity work in Serbia through his foundation. And yet people only talk about him when he breaks the rules. He is a champion, he always wants to win, but sometimes he makes mistakes too.

Q: Justine, do you think that there is a lack of respect for Djokovic and for what he has achieved?
HENIN: It’s very strange. Personally, I respect the champion he is. You can like or not his on-court personality. We are witnessing a golden age in men’s tennis because of the Big Three, but also because of all the players who are coming up behind them. Novak is different from Rafa and Roger, and he also broke onto the scene a little later, ma we have to have the utmost respect for what he’s doing in tennis.

D: Will this premature elimination in New York help him at the French Open?
BECKER: I like your positive attitude, very forward-looking! Novak is still digesting what happened, but he has to view this episode as an opportunity to make some noise on the court and to win more. The question is whether he will play in Rome before Paris – he is very popular in Italy. I think he is a contender at the French Open, he and Thiem can challenge Nadal.

Q: Will the players be more careful because of what happened to him?
HENIN: We are all human beings. It reminds us that we need some humility and that players can make mistakes. In the end, even if Novak is a champion, he can still make mistakes. It’s not easy to control the pressure and one’s emotions during a match. It’s a lesson for all of us, not just for the players. The rule is good because we have to protect the officials and the fans. Maybe some people think that it should be changed, but I don’t agree, because it pushes the players to control their emotions and frustrations. However, it was bad luck in Novak’s case.

D (UbiTennis): I’d like to ask Justine what she thinks about the PTPA, and whether it will be successful.
HENIN: I think Boris has more details about it, I’m not too informed on the subject. We want the players to be united and to be represented in the right way in tournaments. It’s hard for me to judge which is the best way to achieve this. There are many different opinions on the matter. Boris, what do you think?
BECKER: The ATP was founded in 1972 by the players. Over time, it became the ATP Tour, which has two sides: the players and the tournaments. Apparently, many players don’t feel that they are being well-represented by the ATP, and this is the reason why the new association was created. I would like to see them involve female players. I would like for the ATP and the WTA to do something together. This is the only mistake I see. But in principle I think it’s right that the players should have a voice within the ATP, whose structure is different than it was in 1972.

Justine Henin – Wimbledon 2010 (Credit: @Gianni Ciaccia)

Q (UbiTennis): Why do you think Nadal and Federer didn’t concur with Novak’s message? I don’t think he wants to fight with the Players Council, and I think he wants to involve some women as well, from what I understand.
BECKER: I think that Federer and Nadal have different agendas. They are making history, and they also don’t have a personal history of political involvement, which is a smart thing to do, according to some. But they are also the most famous faces in men’s tennis. There should have been a unanimous decision over the new association, but there are many different opinions. Therefore, Nadal and Federer’s interests are not the same as Djokovic’s. I’d like to see the ATP and the WTA unite, but I don’t think we have that right now.  

Q: Could the ball abuse violation be softened in some cases, in order to avoid episodes like the one involving Djokovic, who hit the lineswoman in a clearly unintentional way?  
HENIN: I think that the rule is fair, but this is just my opinion. Where would we draw the line, were we to soften it? Many people think that the decision with Djokovic was too harsh because Bedene wasn’t disqualified the previous week, but I think that the two episodes are completely different. I have never seen anyone on a tennis court who tried to hurt somebody intentionally, but you can hurt people even unintentionally, and we need to control these cases by creating limits that shouldn’t be broken. It also serves as a message to everybody else. We are not perfect, but we need to be examples and to inspire people. I also think that this is an experience that can be used to grow. I have never been involved in something like this, but I’m sure it will be tough for Novak’s ego. It also means that he isn’t a machine, and I like that. Back to the point, I wouldn’t change the rule.

BECKER: I mostly agree with Justine. It was tough for Novak, and you know I’m a fan of his, but in a certain way he has been lucky, because that woman could have been hurt a lot worse. The rule is clear. Novak had already hit a ball against the wall, and he was clearly frustrated, he was dominated by his own emotions. We shouldn’t think that he is a bad person, we both know that emotions come out during a match, and that it is part of human nature to misbehave when things are not going our way. I wouldn’t change the rule, because players are role models. This was an unfortunate instance, but the decision was right

On page 2, the interview will shift to the mental toll that tennis players have to shoulder, as well as to Becker’s vacation with Bjorn Borg and to Kim Clijsters’ comeback

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EXCLUSIVE: ITF Outlines Stance on Holding Events In Eastern Europe Following Russian Attack On Ukraine

The governing body sheds light on their approach to the crises and future tournaments taking place in the region, including a top junior event set to be played next week.

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ITF President David Haggerty at the 2019 ITF Annual General Meeting in Lisbon (photo ITF)

The International Tennis Federation has confirmed to Ubitennis that at least one upcoming tournament has been suspended following the invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces.

 

On Tuesday President Vladimir Putin authorized ‘a special military operation’ against Ukraine to eliminate what he claims is a serious threat and has vowed to demilitarize the nation. The move has prompted widespread outrage from numerous countries and sanctions against Russian officials have been significantly increased. Verified sources have confirmed that the ongoing attack has hit various cities in Ukraine and at least 40 people have been killed.

In the world of sport, there has also been a reaction with Uefa stripping St. Petersburg of hosting the Champions League Final. Meanwhile, Formula One racer Sebastian Vettel has said he will boycott the upcoming Russian Grand Prix and his rival Max Verstappen has called for the event to be cancelled altogether.

So how is tennis reacting to the ongoing development?

Communicating via email, a spokesperson from the ITF confirmed to UbiTennis that following a conversation with the Ukrainian Tennis Federation, they have agreed to suspend one $15k event which was due to take place in April. Furthermore, the decision of staging any upcoming events this year in either Ukraine or Russia will be based on a risk assessment and ‘advice from security experts.

“The ITF believes there is no place in sport for politics but as these current events show, it’s a deeply concerning reality,’ a spokesperson said.
“Our first and highest priority is the health and safety of players and all those travelling, competing, and working these events. In light of this, the ITF and the Ukraine Tennis Federation today decided to postpone a World Tennis Tour $15K tournament that was due to take place in Ukraine this April.”

According to the ITF official calendar, Russia is scheduled to hold multiple events across the junior, professional and senior Tour’s within the next six months. Including the Yeltsin Cup, which is a J1 junior event that is set to begin on Monday. J1 is the second-highest category on the ITF junior Tour after the Grand Slams. Ubitennis understands that discussions about if the event will go ahead are ongoing.

“We’ll continue to keep a very close eye on how this situation evolves. Any further course of action will be decided based on a thorough risk assessment and the advice we receive from security experts and the relevant authorities.” The ITF states.

As of this week, there are currently 11 Russian players ranked in the top 100 with seven of those being on the women’s Tour. Furthermore, Daniil Medvedev will become world No.1 next week following Novak Djokovic’s loss at the Dubai Tennis Championships. Meanwhile, Ukraine has three women’s players in the top 100, including Elina Monfils.

The WTA and ATP are yet to reply to Ubitennis’ query regarding their approach to the crises.

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EXCLUSIVE: Toshi Matsui On Getting ‘Killed’ By Coria, Hitting With Federer And Playing At 43

They say age is just a number and 43-year-old Matsui is proof of this as he speaks to UbiTennis at length about his career. He is currently the oldest active player to hold an ATP ranking.

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Coach Iwai, Roger Federer and Toshi Matsui after training at Japan Open (2006)

Toshi Matsui might not be a household name for many tennis fans but that doesn’t mean his achievements in tennis are not significant.

 

It was back in 1993 when the Japanese player played his first ITF-level match in Hatsuishi. At the time eight out of the current top 10 players on the men’s Tour wasn’t born, Satellites was a category on the ITF circuit before getting later replaced by Futures and Pete Sampras was world No.1. During his career Matsui has played in over 200 Challenger tournaments and even now he continues playing competitively at the age of 43.

Throughout his career, Matsui has dedicated himself to the sport and has had the chance to hit with some of its biggest names. At the 2005 Beijing Open he played against Guillermo Coria, who reached the final of the French Open the year prior.  He ended up losing 6-1, 6-0, but will never forget that encounter.

He looked like a little kid and I was nervous, saying to myself: “ok, let’s see how good he is,” Matsui told UbiTennis. “He was unstoppable and I almost couldn’t win a point. He hardly missed, fought for every single point and to be honest, he “killed” me.”

A year later at the Japan Open he crossed paths with another big name in the sport – Roger Federer. The Swiss Maestro is three years younger than Matsui who is the oldest player to have a singles ranking on the ATP Tour.

“Anytime we met after this, he always had kind words for me. Wherever I travelled on the Tour, if I had the opportunity to see him training I always checked it out,” Matsui said of Federer. “He is still playing at the highest level and how Roger is able to manage his mental motivation and psychical strength after so many years behind him…it is more than amazing. One of my wishes is to hit with him again. It’s gonna be fun, especially now when we both are over 40…”

The veteran player is already embedded in the record books for Japanese tennis after becoming the oldest player to win a national title at the age of 43 years and six months in 2021.

Matsui’s dedication to the Tour has seen him represent his country over four different decades. It is one achievement to maintain a career for so long but it is another thing to do so whilst playing mainly in the lower-level events where prize money is substantially lower. He has been able to do so by playing in domestic events, negotiating sponsorship deals himself and he even has his own online shop to help generate income.  

In 2020 and 2021 Matsui returned to the main stage of men’s tennis after being selected to play in the ATP Cup where he became the oldest man in history to do so. It was the first time in a decade that he has represented his country in a team event.

So what is driving Matsui to continue playing into his 40s? In an exclusive question and answer interview with UbiTennis, he speaks extensively about what has been an extraordinary career.

UBITENNIS: You played your first Challenger tournament back in 1999 and your first ATP Tour event in 2005. What do you remember of those events?

MATSUI: According to my recollection, at that time there were not many challengers and Tour events in Asia, thus I was not feeling comfortable being around elite players.

In 2000, I played my first ATP Challenger Tour event in Yokohama and five years later in Beijing I had my first ATP Tournament, where in the first round I defeated Peng Sun, then I lost to Guillermo Coria who was the French Open finalist a year before. The Argentine player was No. 6 in the world at the time and No. 2 seed in this tournament. He looked like a little kid and I was nervous, saying to myself: “ok, let’s see how good he is”. He was unstoppable and I almost couldn’t win a point. He hardly missed, fought for every single point and to be honest, he “killed” me. (Coria reached the final and only Nadal could defeat him at that tournament). It was a shocking experience for me the way he played.

However, I have played a bunch of matches throughout my career, there was another memorable one: it was the Japanese national singles final in 2006 against Satoshi Iwabuchi, my long-time doubles partner and good friend of mine. I led 5-3, 30-0 with new balls and I lost by 5-7 in the Ariake Coliseum…I was nervous and played under pressure in my first singles final.

UBITENNIS: You have spent more than 20 years as a player on the Tour. What are the biggest changes you have seen?

MATSUI: In my opinion, the biggest improvement nowadays is having more tournaments and several opportunities in Asia – except the last 2 years due to the Asian countries’ lockdowns affected by the pandemic (0 challengers and tour events were organized in 2020 and 2021).

As for further development, it’s the launch of Internet technology. It sounds funny to the new generation that there was a time when we had to fax our entry request, buy flight tickets at the travel agencies and spend a horrific time conducting international calls and so on.

Today, things are less stressful and time consuming. Also, the ATP is more supportive at Challenger level (supervisor, tour manager assists us) than 20 years ago. Regarding the interaction among the players, I can say it was more frequent before than now.

UBITENNIS: How would you describe life as a tennis player on the ITF and Challenger Tours? Do you think the amount of prize money distributed to players in these events is enough to support their careers?  

MATSUI: Playing on ITF/Challenger Tour has always been an issue and a problem is waiting to be resolved. Most tennis players have to find a solution and some option to finance themselves in order to be able to stay alive on the tour.

In my case, for example, I have competed in many domestic tournaments and club matches in Japan as I could. I had sponsor commitments and still have some which I have arranged for myself. I have also built up my fan club (called a an online salon in Japan) and my official webshop. Even my own yuru-chara (the Japanese term for mascot character) was designed  and created by one of my sponsors, Kasa San.

Matsui’s official yuru chara (mascot) designed by Kasa

To earn some extra money, sometimes, I run tennis clinics and play exhibition matches. Furthermore, the prize money in the Japan tennis league is more lucrative than ITF or Challenger Tours. Plus not to mention the fact that there are less expenses.

UBITENNIS: Many players are playing later in their careers, but you are still playing at the age of 43. What motivates you to continue playing and how do you manage your fitness?

MATSUI: To keep and maintain my motivation and fitness was/is never a problem for me. Sure, from time to time we have to face a roller coaster in our lives, but these kinds of situations should teach us how to handle and manage the ups and downs at times. I have my own ways to keep going both mentally and physically.  Obviously, it is crystal clear to me that I will not be able to play forever, nevertheless to assess myself every six months is essential to foresee if I really want to keep bringing this sacrifice to my stamina or not.

According to my schedule, I usually train 6 days a week. Indoors for 3 hours, including exercise in its gym (weightlifting). I also run outdoors in nature, mostly up hills and parks. I practise in the same tennis facility (Kashiwa Tennis Center), where the great Shingo Kunieda, the world No.1 wheelchair player and reigning Olympic champion, also trains. In addition to this, I regularly take massage and acupuncture therapy.

Regarding the latter, I would like to say that 2-3 years ago I met Hajime San who is more than a chiropractor. He helped me a lot to keep me in a good shape with his acupuncture therapy which I would definitely recommend to all other players but also to everyone.  

UBITENNIS: Japan has a reputation for athletes playing later in their careers. Kimiko Date played her last Grand Slam at the age of 45, footballer Kazuyoshi Miura is over the age of 50 and Hiroshi Hoketsu participated in the Olympic equestrian when aged over 70. Is there something about Japanese culture which enables athletes to play for longer or is it just a coincidence?

MATSUI: Maybe, or rather I would say so definitely something in our DNA. Japan has approx. 36 million people aged 65 or older (world’s oldest population) and we have the largest population of people aged 90 or older, 2.3 million including 70K who are 100 years old or above. We respect elderly people, they are always part of our cultural heritage.

The other reason may be found in the diversity of our food. My wife (Tomoyo Takagishi), is a former tennis player and is my greatest help. Since we got married, she has changed my diet to 3 meals per day. She takes care of our kids and my nutrition as well. Since Tomoyo is a certified supplement advisor, she combines the healthiest food for me. She has many excellent recipes and arranges the diversity of the best Japanese cuisines including some raw sweets (similar to organic, without any chemical ingredients).

UBITENNIS: I heard that you have previously hit with Roger Federer. How did that come about?

MATSUI: The last time I had a unique opportunity to hit with Federer happened in 2006 when he came to play at the Japan Open (which he won beating Henman in the final). If I am not mistaken it was the first time that Roger participated in this event. I remember that the speed of the court was so fast and the ball did not bounce so high normally. But interestingly, during our rallies every ball and shot hit by Roger bounced even so high that I was so surprised how he did it.

After our session we took a photo in which we both looked very young. Anytime we met after this, he always had kind words for me. Wherever I travelled on the Tour, if I had the opportunity to see him training I always checked it out. He is still playing at the highest level and how Roger is able to manage his mental motivation and psychical strength after so many years behind him…it is more than amazing. Surely, one of my wishes is to hit with him again. It’s gonna be fun, especially now as we are both over 40…

UBITENNIS: Federer is also over the age of 40 and is recovering from a knee injury, is there any advice you can give him about playing tennis at an older age based on your experiences?

MATSUI: As a matter of fact, there is only a three-year age difference between Roger (40) and me (43). I am sure he is in very good hands and his team, the professionals who assist him, pay attention to every little detail. I wish his rehabilitation is going well and hope to see him again on the court as soon as possible.

I know a really good Japanese acupuncture doctor, so if any issue may occur in his rehab, I am more than welcome to refer Roger to him if his knee or anything does not improve to an appropriate extent.

UBITENNIS: Unlike Federer, you’re ranked outside the top 100 and play on the ITF circuit. How do you manage to continue funding your career at the age of 43?  

MATSUI: I usually don’t play the ITF future tournament, instead I attend mainly challengers and qualifications where I try to sneak into the Tour events. This way, the circumstances are a bit better but I still need to find some source to secure adequate funding. I can’t be grateful enough for one of my long lasting sponsors, the Asia Partnership Fund that has supported me for so long that it seems we are inseparable from each other.

UBITENNIS: Unfortunately, you have been sidelined from action in recent months due to injury, but returned last at the Japanese Tennis Championships. I hear you have broken some records. What were they?

MATSUI: Basically I stayed home since the pandemic started. The only exception was when I was selected to represent my country at the ATP Cup (twice). For me the team competition means a lot, particularly when I can play for my country. I managed to return  to the national squad 10 years after my last Davis Cup appearance (2010).

Team Japan at ATP Cup in 2021 (Captain: Max Mirnyi, players: Kei Nishikori, Yoshihito Nishioka and Toshi Matsui) 

In 2006, under Bob Brett’s supervision, I played in the Davis Cup. We learned a lot from Bob and he had a big impact on the whole team.

In 2020 and one year later, I was a member of Team Japan at the first 2 editions of ATP Cup. At this prestigious event, I achieved another milestone in my career by becoming the oldest player in ATP Cup history. Last November, along with Kaito Uesugi we won the men’s doubles title at the All-Japan national championship. This was my 5th doubles title and the first after 12 years and again I became the oldest Japanese player in our history who won a national championship in any category. I have a feeling that these kinds of records may last for a while…

UBITENNIS: Congratulations on becoming a father once again during the pandemic. Does this alter your perspective about playing on the Tour?

MATSUI: Fortunately, the baby was born in the beginning of the pandemic, so I was able to stay home and spend quality time with my family: my wife, my daughter, Kona and my 9 years old son, Shunki. Then last year, I injured my calf and it took me some months to start my training all over again very carefully. Last autumn, I was so excited and it was kind of fun again to be back to the Tour life. Now I am working on finding a good balance and harmony between tennis and family.

Toshi with his wife Tomoyo, Shunki (son) and Kona (daughter)

UBITENNIS: What are your plans for the future and how much longer do you think you will continue playing?

MATSUI: As long as I am still getting such priceless learning experiences out there, I am ready to play the game. Currently, I focus on protecting my ranking of 217 which will expire in May. So let’s see how it is going to be this year.

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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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