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  WINDY CITY TIMES

Ex-tennis pro Brian Vahaly becomes LGBTQ-rights advocate
by Joshua Irvine
2019-08-23

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Brian Vahaly didn't need to be on the May 11, 2017, edition of Sports Illustrated's Beyond the Baseline podcast.

Neither publicity or the money that tend to come with it were a concern: he'd made the unlikeliest of transitions from a pro tennis player to then the chief financial officer of a venture-capital firm, and he'd lived out of the spotlight for more than a decade, save for his role on the board of directors of the U.S. Tennis Association.

So why did Vahaly decide to become the first openly gay player in modern pro tennis? It had a lot to do with the two boys he'd had less than a year before with his husband of two years, Bill Jones.

"Once I had kids, I felt a sense of responsibility to speak up a little bit more in an effort to make their lives better," Vahaly said.

Vahaly knew a thing or two about starting young: He'd first started playing tennis at age 2. His dedication and focus on the sport had been an alternative for what he couldn't express growing up in a Catholic and conservative household in New Jersey.

"it just took me a little later in life to be willing to ask myself the tougher questions and learn things about myself that I didn't want to know," Vahaly said.

Before he did that, though, Vahaly became one of the United States' most talented tennis players. He made the finals of the 1997 Coffee Bowl, a junior tournament held in Costa Rica, and after graduating from the University of Virginia in 2002, where he won the United State Amateur Championship, reached the NCAA Finals and became UVA's first tennis All-American, Vahaly went pro.

In the professional circuit, Vahaly battled top 10-ranked players in singles and doubles matches and was counted among the top 100 players in the world. He never claimed a title, but in his six years of play took home over half a million dollars from his combined wins.

Like in high school, tennis offered Vahaly a focal point to block out any "extracurricular distractions." He dated woman throughout this time and was named one of People magazine's 25 Hottest Bachelors: his magazine profile identified faith as a vital characteristic for his "dream girl."

Surgery necessitated by multiple tears to his rotator cuff ended Vahaly's pro career in 2007. Players of Vahaly's caliber often parlay their careers into coaching or similar gigs—pro tennis doesn't offer most the sort of money for a late-twenties retirement—but Vahaly was uninterested in making his pro days the focal point of his career.

"I'm all about living the road less traveled, in my personal life as well as my professional," Vahaly said.

So he dusted off the business degree he'd picked up at UVA and set about trying to enter the finance market as a 28-year-old who'd never been in the workforce before.

It took him a couple years and three or four jobs, but Vahaly found he could adapt his tennis ethos of efficiency and strategy into turning around struggling companies.

"I always coach people in their twenties that you really need to find out where you excel," Vahaly said. "For me … it was not about how much money I would make, it'd be about understanding and investing in myself."

And without a tennis career to distract him, it was time for Vahaly to deal with what he'd been dodging since the tennis courts of New Jersey.

"It was a slow process of me judging myself and learning things about myself that I didn't always like," Vahaly said.

It didn't help that many of his close friends came from religious backgrounds, and Vahaly had to combat suggestions of conversion therapy and a "hate the sin, love the sinner" attitude.

"It was a long and winding and confusing road, filled with a lot of shame," said Vahaly, who is currently the chief financial officer at [solidcore]..

But, he said, the experience was one of the things that gave him confidence when he chose to come out publicly years later. He still attends church today.

That other confidence factor—his family—had its beginnings when he started dating Jones, a longtime friend, in 2012. They married in 2015 and found out they were expecting twins via a surrogate on their wedding day.

Vahaly talked about his family on the Sports Illustrated podcast, and how those twins had changed his life.

He still got more than 2,000 negative emails—some threatening, some hateful—the day after.

So Vahaly didn't stop there. He continues to give interviews arguing for LGBTQ representation in pro tennis and pushes from his board position for a Pride event at this year's U.S. Open.

"Culturally, [being gay] has become much more accepted in the last 15 years," Vahaly said. "That doesn't mean the locker room is any easier, or any safer."


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