Two for the Show

By Todd Holcomb
07/14/2003


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 pro prospect.

Not 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. They’ve 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.

So all’s 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?

Vahaly doesn’t think so, although he almost quit for lack of support and confidence in 2001, just six months into life as a pro.

"I don’t 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."

If that’s true, Vahaly is the only recent case in point. Every other young gun in American men’s tennis, Ginepri included, was outfitted in full regalia within months of turning pro.

Conspicuous 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.

"Andy 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, Octagon’s 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."

Not 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 Ginepri’s 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.

Ginepri’s 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 America’s youth, so Ginepri was brought in as a hitting partner during ties in Winston-Salem, N.C., and Houston.

The week’s 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.

"The USTA has given me wild cards when I needed them, and at the same time I’ve had to qualify and prove that I deserved them," Ginepri said. "I think I would’ve got here no matter what route I took, but all of those perks — the coaching, Davis Cup — were valuable."

Make 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 year’s Pacific Life Open at Indian Wells, Calif., when he made the first of consecutive Tennis Masters Series quarterfinals. The second was the Nasdaq-100.

In 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 aren’t so highly projected from the start.

As a junior, Vahaly made the Top 20 of the ITF’s world rankings just as Ginepri did, but Vahaly admits he wasn’t 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 didn’t win his signature. They noted that UVa. hadn’t developed even an All-American, much less a good touring pro.

Vahaly 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).

Practically speaking, the signing was a no-risk, just-in-case gesture, since Vahaly had no other courters and couldn’t 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.

Vahaly lacked the next-big-thing ballyhoo — or even the USTA’s high
recommendation — that would translate into main-draw ATP wild cards. He’s the only American in the ATP’s Top 100 who received none in his first 12 months on tour. Not even SFX’s own event, the Legg Mason Tennis Classic in Washington, put him in the main draw that first year.

By 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 payroll.

"It’s virtually impossible to break through without the full support of the USTA," said Jerry Baskin, who coaches both Vahaly and Ginepri when they’re home in Atlanta. "The USTA will give you every opportunity until you prove you can’t do it, but to the players that aren’t in the so-called ‘pick group,’ they don’t give them any help until they prove they can do it."

Vahaly 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.

For money, Vahaly has been supported by a Texas car dealer and his wife, who were moved by Vahaly’s good character and agreed to invest in him like a stakes horse. Vahaly wouldn’t 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."

At 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. (That’s also the tournament that propelled Ginepri into the Top 100, as he made his first ATP semifinal, losing to eventual-champion Taylor Dent.)

A week 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.

"I 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."

He 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 Vahaly’s talent who didn’t persevere?

"Nobody can say, ‘I was responsible for getting Brian there,’ except for Brian and his family," said Rodney Harmon, the USTA’s director of men’s coaching. "I think he was underestimated by some people, and based on his success, it’s definitely opened up eyes to the next group of college players."

One 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 Baskin’s junior academy outside Atlanta, and both still work out there when they’re 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 other’s matches when at the same tournaments. There’s no hint of jealousy or rivalry between them.

Both 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 Dent 43.

Ginepri 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.

Ginepri 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 don’t think he has any weakness at all. … He can hit winners from (the) forehand, backhand, serving, returning."

Accustomed to that kind of talk, Ginepri is about ready to agree. "I know that if I do the work off and on the court, I’m going to get where I want to be, and I’d like to win a Grand Slam and be a Top 10 player," he said. "I think it’s all a matter of time if I can stay injury-free."

Since 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."

Not that Europe was a waste. Ginepri met Driver, the 33-year-old English actress, during the Stella Artois Championships in London.

"She 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. … Now we’re kind of dating."

Vahaly’s own love life took a hit before Wimbledon when his long-time girlfriend, actress Christina Lakin (Alicia on TV’s "Step by Step"), broke up with him, but People’s 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 it’s
something that will pass."

So, 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 I’ve beaten three Top 25 players," he said. "The question is whether I can do it consistently. I don’t think I can assess my potential for a few more years."

Vahaly’s self-assessment, as well as Ginepri’s, probably matches that of most tennis observers. At least from here on out, it’s completely up to them.