Two for the
When Robby Ginepri was 18, he signed with Octagon, the sports management
group, and was pegged as "the next best thing" in American
tennis after Andy Roddick. When Brian Vahaly was 18, he signed with
Virginia, the university, and was largely written off as a serious
that it matters now, since both have crashed the Top 100 of the
ATP Entry Rankings, the first Atlanta-grown players ever to do it.
Theyve even become small-time celebrities. People magazine
last month profiled Vahaly as one of its "25 Most Eligible
Bachelors." Not just in Georgia, but in the world. Ginepri,
who just notched his first ATP title with a three-set victory over
Jurgen Melzer at the Miller Lite Hall of Fame Tennis Championships
in Newport, has caught the eye of Oscar-nominated actress Minnie
Driver ("Good Will Hunting"). Ginepri spent an extra five
days at Wimbledon this year to be with her.
alls well that ends well, eh? Perhaps, but the story of these
two friends since childhood does beg another question: Is the road
to the big time in American tennis shaped by USTA administrators,
who assign money and coaching; agents, who broker endorsement deals;
and tournament directors, who hand out wild cards?
doesnt think so, although he almost quit for lack of support
and confidence in 2001, just six months into life as a pro.
dont feel that the USTA and wild cards have any real correlation
to the rise of the player," Vahaly claims. "If the player
wants it badly enough and is willing to put the work in, he will
make it, with or without the USTA or tournament directors."
thats true, Vahaly is the only recent case in point. Every
other young gun in American mens tennis, Ginepri included,
was outfitted in full regalia within months of turning pro.
initially for his speed and punishing backhand, Ginepri came to
the fore in 1999 by winning the boys 16s at Kalamazoo. The
next year, he was runner-up in the 18s, then the runner-up to Roddick
in the first all-American final of the junior U.S. Open in 15 years.
In December of 2000, Octagon signed Ginepri, still a senior at Wheeler
High School in Marietta, Ga., in the most competitive pursuit of
a U.S. player since Roddick.
sort of snuck up on everybody, both in terms of his strong finish
at the end of his junior career as well as his smooth transition
to the pros; so there was this sense of, If he can do it so
quickly, who might be next? The answer was Robby Ginepri,"
said Tom Ross, Octagons senior vice president. "Robby
was the youngest of that group, and people began to view him as
perhaps the Jim Courier of this next generation, probably for several
reasons not just for his physical strength and style of play,
but for his professionalism and work ethic."
to mention he was probably the fastest kid in junior tennis, with
an inside-the-baseline return of serve reminiscent of Andre Agassi
in his younger, long-haired days. Ginepri was wild-carded into qualifying
at his first five tour-level pro tournaments and, at age 18, qualified
at the third: the 2001 Nasdaq-100 Open in Miami. Within three months,
the USTA was giving him a free traveling coach in Steve DeVries
and helping with travel expenses (typical annual grants to novice
pros of Ginepris pedigree are at least $20,000). A year later,
and on the brink of the Top 100, Ginepri signed a multi-year deal
with Nike that, with incentives, pays
him well over $100,000 annually.
venture into pro tennis came just as new U.S. Davis Cup captain
Patrick McEnroe was turning the page on Agassi and Pete Sampras
and investing in Americas youth, so Ginepri was brought in
as a hitting partner during ties in Winston-Salem, N.C., and Houston.
weeks pay, at least $10,000, is gold to a young pro, but the
experience is priceless. Ginepri became a full team member in the
first round this year in Croatia. Ginepri also got the full complement
of wild cards. The USTA granted him five into its challenger events
in his first eight months on tour, or until he could make them on
his own ranking. Better yet, Ginepri got two wild cards into main
draws of ATP events those first 12 months. He advanced a round at
both of them.
USTA has given me wild cards when I needed them, and at the same
time Ive had to qualify and prove that I deserved them,"
Ginepri said. "I think I wouldve got here no matter what
route I took, but all of those perks the coaching, Davis
Cup were valuable."
no mistake, Ginepri justified his red carpet. He won a futures and
three challengers, but more telling was that he qualified for ATP
events eight times. That includes this years Pacific Life
Open at Indian Wells, Calif., when he made the first of consecutive
Tennis Masters Series quarterfinals. The second was the Nasdaq-100.
short, Ginepri is the amalgamation of raw talent, work ethic, a
good agent and USA Tennis High Performance running at peak efficiency.
So what of Vahaly? Critics of the USTA have asked what happens to
those who arent so highly projected from the start.
a junior, Vahaly made the Top 20 of the ITFs world rankings
just as Ginepri did, but Vahaly admits he wasnt ready to turn
pro at 18 and academics were his chief motive. His choice of school,
Virginia, was second-guessed by USTA officials and even the college
coaches who didnt win his signature. They noted that UVa.
hadnt developed even an All-American, much less a good touring
made the NCAA final as a senior in 2001, losing to Matias Boeker.
Vahaly then signed with SFX Sports, in part because ProServ founder
Donald Dell, a Virginia law school graduate and now an SFX senior
vice president, took a shine to his fellow Virginia alum, who was
an honors student to boot (3.5 GPA).
speaking, the signing was a no-risk, just-in-case gesture, since
Vahaly had no other courters and couldnt even sniff an endorsement
deal at the time. In his first 12 months on tour, Vahaly won six
pro tournaments, but only one stipend from the USTA, probably between
$5,000 and $10,000 and after winning 37 of 49 pro matches
and four titles in 2001. He got two wild cards into USTA Challengers.
lacked the next-big-thing ballyhoo or even the USTAs
recommendation that would translate into main-draw ATP wild
cards. Hes the only American in the ATPs Top 100 who
received none in his first 12 months on tour. Not even SFXs
own event, the Legg Mason Tennis Classic in Washington, put him
in the main draw that first year.
contrast, James Blake got six main-draw wild cards in the 12 months
after losing his NCAA final in 1999 to Jeff Morrison. The best thing
Vahaly got for free which turned out to have a price tag
nonetheless was USTA coach Scott McCain in March of 2002.
The USTA fired McCain at the end of the year as part of its High
Performance restructuring; Vahaly has since added him to his own
virtually impossible to break through without the full support of
the USTA," said Jerry Baskin, who coaches both Vahaly and Ginepri
when theyre home in Atlanta. "The USTA will give you
every opportunity until you prove you cant do it, but to the
players that arent in the so-called pick group,
they dont give them any help until they prove they can do
also is the only Top 100 American who has never been invited to
be at least a hitting partner for the Davis Cup team, which he finds
ironic since he has more experience being a team member, at UVa.,
than anyone else. Vahaly publicly criticized McEnroe at Indian Wells
this year for picking lower-ranked players as hitting partners and
for failing to return phone calls. McEnroe said he would consider
him for the September tie in the Slovak Republic.
money, Vahaly has been supported by a Texas car dealer and his wife,
who were moved by Vahalys good character and agreed to invest
in him like a stakes horse. Vahaly wouldnt disclose specifics
of the deal, but did say, "They took a risk on me and are receiving
their reward now. The arrangement has worked well for both of us
because without them, I would not be where I am today."
this time last year, Vahaly got his first ATP main-draw wild card,
into the Hall of Fame Championships in Newport, R.I., and cashed
in with his first ATP victory, against Dick Norman. (Thats
also the tournament that propelled Ginepri into the Top 100, as
he made his first ATP semifinal, losing to eventual-champion Taylor
later, Vahaly won a $50,000 challenger in Aptos, Calif., that would
be more significant for whom Vahaly defeated in the final. It was
Noam Behr, an Israeli journeyman player who had embarrassed Vahaly
6-0, 6-0 in U.S. Open qualifying the year before.That loss, and
the added shame that it was suffered under the spotlight of a USTA
wild card, almost drove Vahaly out of the game. He then took another
brutal defeat at a challenger, 6-1, 6-1 to Jimy Syzmanski, before
heading to Kerrville, Texas, for a make-or-break tournament.
had played consecutive events where I was getting killed,"
Vahaly said. "I finally had decided that I might give things
up and move down to Australia with my best friend to work. That
tournament (in Texas), I almost lost to a coach in the qualifying."
came back from two match points there, then beat Chris Woodruff
two matches later in the main draw. From that scare, Vahaly won
four futures to finish out the year. Now, Vahaly is the highest-ranked
college graduate in tennis, but are there others out there with
Vahalys talent who didnt persevere?
can say, I was responsible for getting Brian there,
except for Brian and his family," said Rodney Harmon, the USTAs
director of mens coaching. "I think he was underestimated
by some people, and based on his success, its definitely opened
up eyes to the next group of college players."
irony is that Vahaly and Ginepri still have as much in common as
anybody else on tour. Both got their first serious tennis training
at Baskins junior academy outside Atlanta, and both still
work out there when theyre home. Since Vahaly is three years
older than Ginepri, the two were mostly acquaintances in the juniors,
but now they frequently hit together when home and dine together
on the road. And they watch each others matches when at the
same tournaments. Theres no hint of jealousy or rivalry between
played their first pro matches in 2001, and both made the Top 100
almost exactly 16 months later, the quickest ascents among all 25-and-under
Americans save Roddick. Blake took 26 months, Mardy Fish 35 and
and Vahaly also made their first real breakthroughs at Indian Wells
this year. Ginepri made the quarters after beating a former Grand
Slam champion, Marat Safin, while Vahaly made the quarters after
beating a future Grand Slam champ, Juan Carlos Ferrero. Vahaly also
beat two other Top 25 players in Tommy Robredo and Fernando Gonzalez
and closed a multi-year deal with adidas and Babolat there.
was the only quarterfinalist to make the final eight again the next
week, at the Nasdaq. Said Carlos Moya, who beat Ginepri in a third-set
tiebreaker, "I dont think he has any weakness at all.
He can hit winners from (the) forehand, backhand, serving,
to that kind of talk, Ginepri is about ready to agree. "I know
that if I do the work off and on the court, Im going to get
where I want to be, and Id like to win a Grand Slam and be
a Top 10 player," he said. "I think its all a matter
of time if I can stay injury-free."
the spring, however, Ginepri and Vahaly have lost momentum. Ginepri
missed almost three months to wrist surgery and lost three first-round
matches on grass, one of them 10-8 in the fifth set to Arnaud Clement
at Wimbledon. Ginepri says the wrist is fine now. "Wimbledon
was the first week of it not hurting, but it was still very sore
at the end of the match," he said. "My whole body was."
that Europe was a waste. Ginepri met Driver, the 33-year-old English
actress, during the Stella Artois Championships in London.
kind of watched my match against (Greg) Rusedski on TV and the next
day wanted to meet me, and I said OK," Ginepri said. "She
had a play that week, and we hung out a few times.
kind of dating."
own love life took a hit before Wimbledon when his long-time girlfriend,
actress Christina Lakin (Alicia on TVs "Step by Step"),
broke up with him, but Peoples bachelors issue is helping
pick up the pieces. "I have had some women inquiring about
me through my web site (brianvahaly.com), where Vahaly answers e-mail),"
he said. "All that attention is rather flattering, but I also
realize that its
something that will pass."
too, will his recent slump, Vahaly predicts. He lost eight of 11
after Indian Wells, but believes the summer hard court season and
a more favorable surface will be the cure. As for his long-term
potential, Vahaly is more cautious. "My goal was just to be
ranked in the Top 200 at this time, and now Ive beaten three
Top 25 players," he said. "The question is whether I can
do it consistently. I dont think I can assess my potential
for a few more years."
self-assessment, as well as Ginepris, probably matches that
of most tennis observers. At least from here on out, its completely
up to them.