The Tennis Week Interview  

By Brad Falkner

Brian Vahaly is living proof that nice guys don’t always finish last — sometimes they even finish in the top 25. Much like his friend, James Blake, Vahaly is a very down to earth, polite, modest guy, who does his best to give back to the game that has given him so much.

The nice guy image also did not hurt when People magazine named Vahaly one of world's top 25 sexiest bachelors, a distinction he shares with Prince William and Ashton Kutcher.

While most two year olds were content spending their time visiting Sesame Street or calmed by the soothing sounds of Mister Rogers' voice, young Brian Vahaly was out on the tennis courts grooving his strokes under the watchful eyes of parents, Barry and Karen. This early start paid big dividends for Vahaly, who later would go on to play four years of college tennis for the University of Virginia, earning All American honors in three of his four years. Vahaly also has the distinction of being the school’s all-time winningest player.

After turning pro, Vahaly struggled to adapt to the ultra-competitive circuit and briefly contemplated retiring and moving to Australia with a long-time friend. Suffering a confidence crisis, Vahaly suddenly started to put wins together and show the form that made him one of the top collegiate players in the nation.

This year, Vahaly has produced the most successful season of his professional career. In January, he reached the quarterfinals ofAdelaide. Later that same month he had the misfortune of drawing eventual champion Andre Agassi in the first round of the Australian Open. He quickly rebounded a month later reaching the semifinals in Memphis. On a last minute whim, he entered the qualifying tournament at Indian Wells and then went on an impressive run registering a significant series of victories over U.S. Open and Roland Garros quarterfinalist Fernando Gonzalez, Roland Garros champion Juan Carlos Ferrero and Tommy Robredo, before succumbing to Vince Spadea in the quarterfinals.

The 2001 NCAA singles finalist, who celebrates his 24th birthday tomorrow (Saturday) Vahaly struggled, as did many of the young Americans, during the European clay-court season. His lack of experience on the European clay and British lawn tennis was a hindrance to greater success overseas. However this young American remains positive about his chances across the pond in the future.

I sat down with Vahaly in the relaxed setting of Wimbledon’s Aorangi Park, (practice courts area). The constant pop of tennis balls careening off the finely- tuned racquets of ATP pros Andre Sa and doubles partner Dominik Hrbaty was the perfect soundtrack for our casual tennis banter.

Tennis Week: Most of the young American players had a tough time this spring and summer during the clay and grass-court seasons. Obviously, most Americans grow up playing on hard courts. Did you guys feel some extra pressure out there to continue the success of the hard-court season?

Brian Vahaly: Well, it’s like you said: most of us grew playing on the hard courts. Wimbledon was only like my third or fourth grass-court tournament. We all received so much attention starting in Memphis, then at Indian Wells, followed by the NASDAQ. So the expectations were there.

Tennis Week: With as many events as there are on the pro circuit how difficult is it to find the time to work on your clay-court game?

Brian Vahaly: It hard to practice on clay through the year because we’ve got hard court and indoor events until next April. It’s frustrating for all of us, nobody likes to lose for seven or eight weeks in a row. Most of the older pro have told me to be patient and that it takes time to develop your game on clay.

Tennis Week: What is like to play against guys like Andre and Todd, who you idolized as a kid?

Brian Vahaly: It’s huge. It hard to concentrate out there when you’re playing these guys because I’ve watched them play so many matches on T.V. When you've been watching these guys play for like over 15 years it can be hard to take it seriously. What I mean is that there is a shock value to these matches at first. For me only being out here for two years a lot of this still kind of shocks me. Like playing at Wimbledon and this year the French Open for the first time. I’ve been thrown right into it. I gotten to play on center court in three of the four Grand Slams.

Tennis Week: Looking forward to the U.S. Open. You’ve had your best results on the hard court, is this the Slam that means the most to you?

Brian Vahaly: It’s one that I obviously gear towards. I have a lot of friends and family in that area. We are hoping to get a lot of support there. That’s the one that we all like to do our best in. To say that one Slam is bigger than the others, to me no. I watched them all as a kid. So any one of them that I could do well in I’d take in a heart beat.

Tennis Week: When did you really start to believe in yourself as a professional?

Brian Vahaly: I competed well last summer, I had wins over (Davide) Sanguinetti and (Jan) Vacek. I would win a round or two at the major tournaments. But it wasn't really until Memphis where I was able to string a few wins together. Then at Indian Wells, I was able to beat guys in the top 25 for back-to-back-to-back days. That really meant something. But at the same time you do not want to get overconfident.

Tennis Week: You were not the only young American that did well at Indian Wells this year. I know that you were very supportive of one another? Can you talk about your relationship with the other guys?

Brian Vahaly: Andy (Roddick) and I hang out all the time. We go to dinner together, we like to play cards. What’s great about Andy is that he doesn’t look at himself as any different than the rest of us. He has gone out of his way to help us. He’s gone to my matches with a towel wrapped around his head and he's out there to support me. That means a lot to me and the other guys that he comes and watches. To see Mardy (Fish), and James (Blake) there and Robby (Ginepri) comes out, it really helps. We literally go out of our way to support each other. These guys have become pretty good friends, which I was not counting on. James and I met in college and kept in touch through email. I got know the guys really well in the futures and challengers, when nobody was anybody. We got to know each other for who we were, it wasn’t a matter of this intense competition for Grand Slams right away. We were all hanging out in these smaller towns, going out having fun together and getting to be better tennis players as a group. The friendships that we formed in the last year and a half were there when we were all ranked in the 500s, 600s, miserable, and wondering why we were playing and wondering if we were every going to make it.

Tennis Week: What’s your living situation like these days?

Brian Vahaly: Andy actually just asked me to come and live down with him in Boca Raton. I may end up doing that. All the guys inTampa have asked me to move down there as well. I need to make some decisions. Initially, I was training with Robby Ginepri in Atlanta, but he’s going to move down toTampa.

Tennis Week: How does it feel to be one of America's 25 hottest bachelors? Wait don’t you have a girlfriend?

Brian Vahaly: An ex-girlfriend. We broke up about two months ago. People Magazine actually called me two weeks later saying 'We heard that you and your girlfriend broke up.' I was like 'I don’t know how you heard, but whatever.' You would not believe how much I have been getting teased by the guys about being in the magazine.

Tennis Week: Now you know how James Blake and Jan-Michael Gambill must feel?

Brian Vahaly: (Laughing) Yeah, I guess. But they do it all the time, this was my first time.