Former Tennis Pro Brian Vahaly Talks About New Fitness Venture And Being Gay In Pro Sports

Retired American tennis pro Brian Vahaly took over as CEO of YouFit Gyms in February 2021, to lead the national gym chain’s turnaround coming out of a previous bankruptcy.

Within six months, the longtime Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) player saw the firm through a company-wide rebrand, in which the firm shed its previous name (as YouFit Health Clubs) to focus on personalized services.

Since last October, YouFit has taken on more than $20 million of new investment money to fully update and renovate all of its 80 facilities across 10 states, most of which are along the American east coast.

As an executive of a business venture on the rise, Vahaly believes that trust, good communication and building a team with the right people are all essential. Motivation is huge too, he says.

“I admire the bravery in people’s convictions and their ability to push themselves. It is inspiring. So, my job at YouFit Gyms is to be supportive, while my eyes occasionally drift to what’s happening more broadly in the market and to push the team to get the most out of each week,” Vahaly said.

“If we focus each day on the small things, we inevitably wake up with good outcomes. It’s tempting to think about the desired result, but I have found that victory is in the process and the smallest decisions. The result is simply the outcome you get to celebrate in the end.”

Vahaly is also notable for being the only ATP player—former or current—that is openly gay, still to this date. Although he was not “out” at the time he was on the ATP Tour, from 2001 to 2007, Vahaly thinks there is still work to be done in making tennis more openly diverse.

“Too often tennis has been perceived as a privileged, white, straight, upper-class sport. We can change that.”

Vahaly said also that tennis as a sport has flourished in the USA and beyond because of the “passionate community of volunteers who loved to get together with their friends and play.”

“Given tennis is such an international sport, a gay male tennis player would still have challenges competing in countries where being gay is not even legal, and you certainly do not have teammates who have your back,” Vahaly said this week.

“So, the barriers are real,” Vahaly added, saying also, “I applaud the next tennis player who has the guts to live his life authentically, while also respecting if players are simply not comfortable being public even in today’s climate.”

Currently, Vahaly lives in Florida with his husband and twin boys. He said that his decision to come out more publicly beyond family and friends came from becoming a parent.

Pickleball: The next big thing?

Aside from running a growing fitness business and being a husband and parent, Vahaly is also involved in the growth of another sport, pickleball.

“Pickleball is such an easy sport to play, and I wonder if people prefer the ‘game’ of pickleball as opposed to the (competitive) sport,” Vahaly said, also adding that YouFit Gyms have added pickleball facilities as a part of their facilities remake and overhaul.

“Pickleball is a racket sport in which individuals or doubles teams, hit a hollow polymer ball over a three-foot net using solid-faced paddles. Pickleball can be played indoors or outdoors and was invented in 1965 as a children’s backyard game in Washington state, where it has been adopted as the state’s official sport.

During his career on the ATP Tour, Vahaly posted a 41-43 singles record, and rose to a world No. 57 ranking after defeating then-world No. 1 Juan Carlos Ferrero at the Indian Wells Masters, in March 2003.

This week I connected with Brian Vahaly to talk about his time on the court and in business, as well as his thoughts on tennis in 2022.

Andy Frye: What from the tennis court translates to business leadership and running a fitness business?

Brian Vahaly: As a former player on the ATP Tour, you quickly learn what it’s like to run your own business and manage a team. You have a coach, a physical trainer, a sports psychologist, and a variety of other people to help manage the operations of your career.

Plus, you have to consider your personal brand and manage the press. You have to know when it’s time to change teams or tactics, or when you need to react to a change in the environment. You have to learn how to deal with success and failure, and ultimately refine your instincts after years of hard work and preparation.

You learn how to be a decision-maker and take ownership of those good and bad decisions, learning what data matters the most when making instinctual decisions, even without all the information in hand. Over time, your brain also learns to discern which data does not matter, and you figure out how to ignore it, such as fan feedback, for example. Translating the sport into a business setting took time for me, but ultimately the skill sets and the approach are quite similar.

For me, it all starts with identifying the right talent and empowering your team to do the work. No one succeeds as a one-man or woman show. As a leader, you do need to be a good and decisive decision-maker, and ensure the tactics and the direction of the business is correct. You are there to steer the ship, but ultimately you are nothing without the team. So it’s critical you create a good work environment and culture for people to succeed.

I want people to love the work and be challenged by the work. With that said, you must hold them accountable to the outcome. It’s probably why I enjoy working with athletes or people willing to put their necks on the line for what they believe is the right decision.

AF: Pickleball has become more popular over the last decade. Is it mainly a fitness pursuit or can it grow to something bigger?

Brian Vahaly: Pickleball is the fastest-growing sport right now, and a great way for both seniors and young people to get exercise. We saw an opportunity inside our group fitness rooms to offer this as an amenity for our customers. Our focus at YouFit is providing best-in-class amenities at an affordable price.

As for the sport of pickleball, I’m encouraged about the future when I see Tom Brady and LeBron James make investments in the sport. The real challenge will be how the sport professionalizes itself over the next few years, as the primary draw to date has been the informal nature and sense of community. I am curious to see the ratings of pickleball on TV in the coming years to see if people are actually willing to spend time watching it given its simplicity.

AF: You were (and still are) the only openly gay ATP player. Were there barriers because of that while you played?

Vahaly: Being a gay man and a professional athlete continues to be a tough road even in 2022. Each sport tends to have two to three public figures who have been brave enough to come out, but we are a small fraternity. It’s true no other tennis player has come out yet, and I will not say my road to success on the ATP Tour was easy.

I could not live my life authentically at the time, and I certainly look back and wonder whether that impacted my tennis and my ability to move up higher in the rankings. I was inherently private and often ostracized myself from others.

The motivation for me to speak about this publicly came for me once I had twin boys of my own. Turns out that having a family can change everything.

AF: Pro tennis has obviously become much more diverse since the early 1980s. How important is that as the game grows?

Vahaly: I serve on the Board of Directors of the United States Tennis Association because the sport continues to be so important to me. I want to see it grow and thrive, as the research is there that proves the massive health benefits for everyone who participates in the sport.

We also have a responsibility to work on making it a more diverse sport, and that comes with really connecting with the communities. Oftentimes, sports do performative acts to show support for diverse communities. It’s not enough, and as someone representing the LGBTQ+ community, I know the difference when people want to authentically connect with me and my story, versus speaking to me out of corporate obligation.

Once diverse communities feel both safe, understood, and welcomed into a community, the opportunities are endless. We need to do that work in tennis. We need to reignite that passion in all our diverse communities and we will see tennis continue to boom as it has been coming out of Covid-19. With a big thanks to Serena!

Read Frye’s interviews with Frances Tiafoe and Billie Jean King.

*****

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *