Former pro tennis player Brian Vahaly is now a venture capitalist in Washington, D.C., with a husband, Bill Jones, and 10-month-old twin boys, Bennett and Parker. It’s not the life he envisioned more than a decade ago when he was a Top 100 player on the men’s tour.
“It wasn't until after I left the game that I really had to come full circle with myself, understand who I am as a person, where am I going, am I happy, and I had to come to terms with my sexuality and that was not easy, especially coming from a sports background,” Vahaly said. “It was a long learning curve that I'm happy to be on the other side of now ... The new normal is exciting and it's great but it was tough to go through.”
Vahaly, 37, who lives with Jones and their sons in Annapolis, Maryland, publicly discussed being gay for the first time Thursday on the podcast of Sports Illustrated senior writer and tennis expert Jon Wetheim.
Vahaly is the first pro men’s tennis player ranked in the Top 100 in the modern era to ever publicly disclose he is gay. He is the second ATP men’s player to come out, joining Francisco Rodriguez, who came out in 2008. Rodriguez’s highest ATP ranking was 373.
Vahaly was ranked as high as 64th in 2003, his best season on the tour when he beat three Top 10 players, including the then-ranked No. 1 player. (Bill Tilden, a three-time Wimbledon champion who died in 1953, was also gay at a time when the topic was not discussed publicly.)
Injuries forced Vahaly, a star at the University of Virginia, to retire in 2007 after a six-year career and also forced him to come to terms with his sexuality, he told Wertheim.
While playing, “I became really great at asking other people questions and being everybody's friend but being very private myself because I didn't want to ask those personal questions of myself and that was a defense mechanism I built up over a period of time out there on tour,” Vahaly said.
He also did not want to be known simply as the “gay player” when he still wasn’t comfortable with himself.
If he had come out soon after retirement, "you quickly become the athlete who was gay and I just did not at that point in time and at my level of confidence and security and, frankly, my understanding of myself, that's not how I wanted to be remembered by,” he says. “For very selfish reasons, this is something I am just going to explore on my own. I never saw myself being a pioneer or advocate and ... it was something I had to come to terms with to sort of mourn the life I thought I was going to be living with a wife and kids.”
Vahaly is also not sure how an openly gay player would have been accepted during his era.
"If you looked at it today I think the odds are it would be a much more welcoming environment than perhaps it was in the early 2000s.
“Back then, even if you were just friends with gay people that was somehow a reflection of you and your sexuality, they were sort of stigmatized in that way. I think now you see some of the best athletes in the world saying 'I think this is great, I support the cause' ... That kind of leadership did not exist at that time."
Vahaly, once named one of the world’s most eligible straight bachelors by People, married Jones in 2015. Last year the couple had twins via a surrogate.
“Seeing that my my marriage can be accepted and celebrated in the community and won't be a problem [for my children] growing up is extremely important to me,” he said.
The podcast is 36 minutes long and Vahaly starts discussing his sexuality at the 15:35 mark, but the whole thing is worthwhile for sports fans as he discusses the withdrawal that sets in for a pro athlete when they retire, the joys of the tour and his sports hopes for his sons.
It’s important that Vahaly freely discusses being gay since visibility is so important for LGBT people in sports. Every LGBT person goes on their own journey and it’s great that Vahaly, in his words, is “happy to be on the other side.”