On the 'A' list
Magazine sees special quality in Vahaly


By PLOTT BRICE
Atlanta Journal-Constitution Staff Writer

Marietta's Brian Vahaly is either one refreshing blast from the past or a potential trendsetter whose style and demeanor may sneak up on even the most obnoxious of today's superstars.

Whatever obscurity he enjoyed as a tennis player preparing for The Championships at Wimbledon was blown away last week when People magazine named him one of the world's 25 Most Eligible Bachelors. "I was surprised," Vahaly, 23, said from London. "It's crazy. It's just not something you think about -- being named to that. I am honored to be with those guys." He pauses for a moment and then laughs. Maybe this laughter will, as his one-time coach Jerry Baskin suggests, "take a little pressure off. He's always so focused."

"It's perfect," said Kathy Baskin, the coach's wife. "Brian is what every mother is looking for. He is a college graduate, he is nice looking, and he has great morals. Plus, he's a fabulous tennis player."

"He has what some see as a glamorous lifestyle," said Jerry Baskin, who runs the Baskin Tennis Academy in east Cobb. "He is articulate, makes good money. Considering all I know about Brian, I'd ask him: So who is this Prince William guy, anyway?"

William, of course, shares a spot on People's list of most eligible bachelors. But William has no shot at winning Britain's beloved Wimbledon.

Today marks the start of Wimbledon, and Vahaly's second appearance on the famed grass courts. In 2002, he got in as a qualifier and lost in the first round.

Currently 81st in the ATP Tour entry rankings, Vahaly began his tennis in metro Atlanta with Baskin. He played ALTA and USTA, winning with balance and technique and no overpowering weapons. He played smart, and right into a scholarship at the University of Virginia, where he was a three-time All-American.

"He had it all," said his sister, Kelly Vahaly Long, an Atlanta resident. "He had the brains and the athletic talent. But he was always a good kid."

While excelling at tennis, he also ripped through a double major in finance and business management, as one would expect from a student who scored 790 in math on the SAT.

He turned pro after his senior year, so far down in the rankings that not many people expected to see him at the grand slam tournaments. He lost in the 2001 NCAA singles final to Georgia's Matias Boeker, whom many thought would be far ahead of him now. But Boeker is laboring in the sport's minor leagues.

In 2001, Vahaly was setting out for the tour with a "terrible" serve and forehand, according to Baskin.

"We knew the top players would attack there," Baskin said. "We worked on those areas, and we sat down and set goals. I was really thinking top 200 by the end of 2002. But he made top 100."

While he has made leaps over lesser players, he also has defeated some kingpins. He has a win over 2003 French Open champion Juan Carlos Ferrero.

But in slams, where the luck of the draw is so important, Vahaly has stumbled. He drew Andre Agassi in the first round at the Australian Open in January and lost. He drew No. 1 ranked Lleyton Hewitt in the first round of the French and lost, although he did take a set from him.

"I think those moments on a center court at a grand slam and televised all over the world are moments to cherish," Vahaly said. "I do. And I hope I have learned something from them."

Ah, the luck of the draw. Vahaly's opening match today is against Italy's Filippo Volandri, a clay court player uncomfortable with grass court play.

"I think it is a great opportunity for me," Vahaly said. "Then again, no one expects him to go far in this tournament, so he has nothing to lose. But I still feel I have an advantage.''

Vahaly, who is sharing a house at Wimbledon with Jan-Michael Gambill -- once noted by People as one of the world's 50 Most Glamorous People -- will hit with his buddy Andy Roddick in practice. Roddick, a rising young American star with a serve that has reached 149 mph, is among the oddsmakers' favorites to win Wimbledon.

"Working with Andy is a huge advantage for me," Vahaly said. "It has been good for my game. But I will also look around to hit with somebody whose style is more like [Volandri].

Should Vahaly win today, his second-round opponent will be the winner of the Tommy Robredo-Jose Acasuso match. Both are clay courters. Should Vahaly survive those two rounds, he will begin his real Wimbledon test in a quarter of the draw that includes some huge hitters -- Roddick, Greg Rusedski, fellow Mariettan Robby Ginepri, Taylor Dent and defending champ Hewitt.

All of this is exciting for Vahaly, as it would be for any young person. But Vahaly right now has planted his ego in his faith. He was raised Catholic and attended Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in downtown Atlanta, a church he still attends with his family when he's home.

He calls the Rev. Greg Thompson, a Presbyterian minister he met while at Virginia, his mentor. They talk weekly, either over the phone or via e-mail.

"I don't know how many people are familiar with U.Va., but this is a campus obsessed with image, and Brian was one of the more popular kids on campus," Thompson said. "But Brian was interested in more than that. He wanted something more substantial in his life. He was reaching for a deeper level.

"I know him. This is not a fleeting thing. The People magazine thing? I think he will be polite about it and still be able to see it for what it is. It's a nice thing, but it's a silly thing. It's a money-making thing for the magazine. Next year, there will be 25 more people. He knows that."

And now, Vahaly begins to handle the photographers, the teenage girls and the unforgiving grass at Wimbledon.

"But in all of this, the spiritual side is very important to me," Vahaly said. "The most important thing."