Brian Vahaly: ‘I Don’t Want Kids To Fear’
Brian Vahaly has been a trailblazer for the LGBTQ+ tennis community, leading the way as a former player who came out after his career. The former World No. 64, who is a member of the USTA’s Board of Directors, is doing everything possible to make more comfortable those potentially struggling with their identity.
“I really want to make it easier for somebody who potentially has my background, who could also be struggling. Maybe [it’s] not someone [who] talks about it, doesn’t understand themselves well enough. I need them to know that it’s going to be okay,” Vahaly said. “I need them to see that there’s a great life on the other end of it because, I don’t know, but I believe had I known that, my approach could have been different and I actually believe I potentially could have achieved more in tennis. That’s hard to sit with, but I don’t want any more kids to sit with that same potential fear [or] concern.”
Vahaly enjoyed plenty of success on court, beating stars including Juan Carlos Ferrero and Fernando Gonzalez. But in his final two seasons on Tour, he began to have thoughts about his sexuality. The American admitted it was “massively terrifying” to acknowledge those thoughts.
“I grew up in a pretty Christian home, so number one, it wasn’t going to be talked about in the early days. Then you think about going on Tour, my entire life was about being the best tennis player I could be, and that was really where my focus was. I knew I wasn’t the same as a lot of my peers and guys that I was competing against, but I didn’t really want to ask myself a lot of those questions,” Vahaly said. “At that point I was dating a girl for a couple of years. It was great. I sort of felt like, 'Alright, I’m the pro athlete.' She was an actress at the time, and I was like, ‘This is great. I’m living the dream and I’ve actually built the life that people want, and I’m crushing it.’”
Vahaly believed in order to fully explore that side of himself, he had to completely pull away from the sport. In tennis, he learned to manage his emotions and stress, which presented an opportunity to push his thoughts away while he was a player.
“Unfortunately it took about four or five years to really understand myself better and realise this is the truth and this is who I am and I need to accept it and own it a little bit,” said Vahaly, who played his last match in 2006 due to a shoulder injury. “But it was tough, and I’d never felt there were people in sports I could talk about it with because I just knew it was such a hyper-masculine and intense environment and I knew they weren’t really going to understand.
“Frankly, it’s also tough to be vulnerable with players you’re competing against because we’re out there fighting for the same paycheque. It was something I inevitably came to terms with.”
It was tough for Vahaly to also consider his identity while trying to accomplish his goals on court.
“I didn’t have the height, I didn’t have the background. My serve was terrible, my forehand was terrible, but I knew how to compete really well. I was fortunate to build a career out of it and I was unwilling to risk anything for it,” Vahaly said. “I think afterwards as I started to understand myself a little better and started dating, I don’t know if I really wanted to be the tennis player that was ‘the gay tennis player’.
Since his career, Vahaly has married his husband, Bill Jones, and they are the parents of two twin boys. While his full-time job is outside tennis, he takes seriously his role on the USTA Board of Directors, directly working with the association’s diversity and inclusion efforts. Vahaly was instrumental in the introduction of a Pride event at the US Open. He also makes sure the USTA and its events partner with the right organisations to further LGBTQ+ causes.
“People just want to know that they’re welcomed. How can we continue to build those partnerships at the local level and the national level so for us at the USTA, tennis looks like the United States?” Vahaly said. “It’s a diverse place, it’s a lot of different types of people and we want to make sure that they all feel welcome.”