Former tennis pro Brian Vahali talks new fitness venture and being gay in professional sports

Retired American tennis pro Brian Wahali took over as CEO of YouFit Gyms in February 2021 to lead the turnaround of the national gym chain after a previous bankruptcy.

Within six months, the longtime Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) player saw the firm through a company-wide rebrand that saw 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 in new investment money to fully update and renovate all 80 of its facilities in 10 states, most of which are along America’s East Coast.

As the head of a growing business venture, Vahaly believes that trust, good communication and team building with the right people are essential. Motivation is also huge, he says.

“I admire the courage of people’s convictions and their ability to assert themselves. It’s inspiring. So my job at YouFit Gyms is to support while keeping my eye on what’s going on in the wider market from time to time and push the team to get the most out of each week,” said Vahali.

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

Vahaly is also notable for being the only ATP player – past or present – who is openly gay, still to this date. Although he was not “out” during his time on the ATP Tour, from 2001 to 2007, Vahaly believes there is more work to be done to make tennis more openly diverse.

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

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

“Given that tennis is such an international sport, a gay tennis player would still have challenges competing in countries where being gay isn’t even legal, and you certainly don’t have teammates to have your back,” Vahali said this week.

“So the barriers are real,” Wahali added, adding, “I applaud the next tennis player who has the courage to live their life authentically while respecting if players just don’t feel comfortable being public even in today’s climate.”

Wahali currently lives in Florida with her husband and twins. He said his decision to come out more publicly beyond family and friends came from becoming a parent.

Pickleball: The Next Big Thing?

In addition to running a growing fitness business and being a husband and parent, Vahaly is also involved in the development 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,” Vahali said, also adding that YouFit Gyms have added pickleball facilities as part of their facilities remodel and major repair.

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

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

This week I caught up with Brian Vahali to talk about his time on the court and in business, and his thoughts on tennis in 2022.

Andy Fry: What does tennis court mean to business leadership and fitness business management?

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

You also need to consider your personal brand and manage the press. You need to know when it’s time to change your team 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 eventually hone your instincts after years of hard work and preparation.

You learn how to be a decision maker and take responsibility for those good and bad decisions, learning which data matters most when making instinctive decisions, even without all the information at hand. Over time, your brain also learns to recognize which data doesn’t matter and you figure out how to ignore it, like fan reviews for example. It took me a while to translate the sport into a business environment, but in the end the skills and approach are quite similar.

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

I want people to love work and be challenged by work. With that said, you need to hold them accountable for the outcome. That’s probably why I enjoy working with athletes or people willing to bet on what they think is the right decision.

AF: Pickleball has become more popular in the last decade. Is this a basic fitness activity or can it grow into something bigger?

Brian Vahaly: Pickleball is the fastest growing sport right now and is a great way for both adults and young people to exercise. We saw an opportunity in our group gyms to offer this as a convenience for our customers. Our focus at YouFit is to provide best-in-class amenities at an affordable price.

As for the sport of pickleball, I am encouraged for the future to see Tom Brady and LeBron James investing in the sport. The real challenge will be how to professionalize the sport over the next few years, as the main attraction so far has been the informal nature and sense of community. I’m curious to see the ratings for 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 any barriers because of that while you were playing?

Wahali: Being a gay man and a professional athlete continues to be a tough road even in 2022. Every sport usually has two to three public figures who have been brave enough to come out, but we’re a small fraternity. It’s true that no other tennis player has come out yet, and I won’t say that my path to success on the ATP Tour was easy.

I wasn’t able to live my life authentically at the time and I certainly look back and wonder if that affected my tennis and my ability to move up the rankings. I was inherently private and often rejected by others.

The motivation to talk about this publicly came to me when I had twins of my own. It turns out that having a family can change everything.

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

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

We also have a responsibility to work towards making it a more diverse sport and that comes with really connecting with communities. Often sports perform performative actions to show support for different communities. It’s not enough, and as someone who represents the LGBTQ+ community, I know the difference when people want to authentically connect with me and my story instead of talking to me out of corporate obligation.

Once diverse communities feel both safe, understood and welcome in one community, the possibilities are endless. We have to get this job done in tennis. We need to reignite that passion in all our diverse communities and we will see tennis continue to thrive as it emerges from Covid-19. Many thanks to Serena!

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

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