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Reflection on 2007 Brian Vahaly Interview

I personally interviewed Brian Vahaly back in 2007.  Let's reflect on how the game has progressed since 2007. It's always fun to look at where we were and where we are now...  

BACKGROUND: US National Junior Team, won the B18 Easter Bowl, QF at Junior Wimbledon, 20-match streak at #1 singles in college, NCAA Singles Finalist (unseeded), ranked #1 NCAA in Doubles, double-majored at the University of Virginia in Finance and Business Management, People’s Magazine 25 Most Eligible Bachelors in 2003, QF at Indian Wells ATP defeating Gonzalez, Ferrero, and Robredo, he was the only person with a college degree ranked in the top 100 ATP at the time.

From a developmental standpoint, who was your coach in the juniors, from what age, who was it, and what did he stress that separates him from other coaches from a technical, tactical, or mental standpoint? Also, looking back, did he coach anyone else that went on to become great tennis players? 

Jerry Baskin was my primary coach in the juniors. I started working with him when I was seven years old. He is also the coach of Robby Ginepri and spent time working with ATP Pro Bobby Reynolds as well. I think he is one of the best strategic coaches in the country. He always spent time teaching us how to win and the importance of doing what it takes to win a match. He would scout our next opponent and give us 3-4 things to concentrate on before we went onto the match. It wasn't about how we had to play to win...it was about making our opponent feel as uncomfortable as possible and exploiting their weaknesses. However, technically I believe Jerry Baskin is one of the best developmental coaches in the game. I think its a shame the USTA doesn’t incorporate more proven coaches like Jerry who by the results of their pupils, clearly know how to coach at a high level. 

If Jerry Baskin is excellent at player development with a proven track record, why aren't we (or the USTA) seeking out his opinions and knowledge to train the next batch of juniors? Or other behind-the-scenes developmental coaches for that matter? Along the same lines, do the same coaches churn out players (who are they?) and why? 

I think there are tons of high level coaches that the USTA currently is not employing. Personally, I worked with Steve DeVries and Scott McCain professionally who have an impeccable resume in getting players ranked in the 1000's into the top 100 in the world. They know what it takes to improve players at a high level and help them adjust to life on the road. They are a huge reason I got to my career high ranking and currently the USTA no longer employs them. The USTA continues to employ previous world ranked players who were great players but have no proven track record in coaching. And with the limited job security that the USTA provides you..lots of our top level coaches are unwilling to relocate or risk their own successful careers to try and help all the world class players. 

You had a great junior career, very similar to some of our current promising young American juniors in terms of international prowess and Junior Grand Slam experience. In the recent past, some of our best juniors have decided to forgo college, while you pursued a collegiate degree. There is a big debate as to whether college tennis can actually make you a better tennis player. For example, practices are not individualized, teammates have different goals, sleep deprivation from schoolwork, etc. What side do you take in the debate? Is it a case-by-case basis? 

I would definitely say this is a case-by-case basis. Obviously you are never going to hear me speak anything negatively about college. For many of the American players, I feel its an essential part of your personal development as well as your physical maturity. It is comical to see how many immature players we have out there on the tour with not a whole lot of intelligence or really a mind for the game. The sad thing is to know they do have the talent, but wasted their potential in their belief that their only chance to make it as a pro was to not go to college. I wish the USTA would do a better job showing them that people like James Blake, Todd Martin, Malivai Washington, John McEnroe, etc did go to college and went on to have a thriving tennis career. But overall, you have to look at each kid and what stage of development they are in. Personally, I think we all knew that Andy Roddick was ready for the pros. James did a very smart thing in taking a few years at Harvard before his game developed and he matured as a person to handle the pressures and day-to-day stress of being on tour. Ginepri, Fish, and Dent also made smart decisions in not going to college based on their style of play at the time to make that decision. Guys like Kuznetsov, Levine, Jenkins, Harper-Griffith, D Young, etc could have benefited for 1-2 years in college before the rigors of the pro tour. At this point in time, Sam Querrey is the only player that I highly endorse playing professionally immediately as his game is more than ready to take on the best in the world. Having played him twice, I'm very impressed with his speed, agility, and power. I'll be curious to see what type of coaching he gets and how his belief in himself develops over time. He's a great kid though. 

I look back through your senior collegiate results where you had a 20 match win streak in dual-matches through to the finals of the NCAA. The win streak is impressive, but what people do not realize is the scores by which you won those matches. On average the sets were either 6-0, 6-1, or 6-2 against #1 players from top NCAA ranked teams. Skipping to today, do you feel certain players such as Wayne Odesnik and Brendan Evans jumped the gun? What is your feeling on players who were in college for a year then turned professional such as Tres Davis, Travis Rettenmaier, Rajeev Ram, and Ryan Sweeting? Now we have talented juniors such as Michael McClune pushing forward to possibly forgo college. Seems like history keeps repeating itself- but people would say, "I am chasing a dream" and others would say, "you are betting the house." 

Personally, I believe they are betting the house. I'm not a fan of guys like Rettenmaier, Davis, Evans, Odesnik turning pro. While they have had some occasional good results, I do feel as though they could have benefited from time at college. I think Rajeev Ram is a different story. He had accomplished what he needed from college and had matured where it was his time to take a shot for the pros, and he was doing quite successful before dealing with injuries. But to me its a pretty big risk. Personally, I was always able to relax on the court knowing that tennis wasn't my only option. I had a great college degree from a great university that I could always fall back on. So I had no fear and just challenged myself to be the best I could be. Sometimes I wonder whether some of these kids feel too much pressure due to how much pressure they've put on themselves due to their education decisions. 

Under the description of USTA High Performance, here is the outline: 

Our program assists with the development of players in following ways:
• Bring our best players together to practice and play matches against each other
• Provide direct or supplemental coaching based on the player's developmental unit/need
• Develop a working relationship with personal coaches
• Impress upon the player the importance of physical fitness and off-court training
• Impress upon the player the importance of developing mental toughness
• Provide video analysis to improve technical aspects of the player's game
• Provide speakers on various topics in order to educate players and parents
• Provide play-off opportunities for wild cards
• Assist players with the proper balance of scheduling the appropriate level of tournaments (including exposure to international and pro circuit competition at a younger age.)

The aim of our program is to develop a united national culture among players, personal coaches and our staff, so that American tennis can be the strongest in the world. 

If you were in charge of the USTA Player Development, what would you do? Where are the current shortcomings? Where would you look for talent? Would you have more training facilities? Would you increase or decrease the number of National Coaches? Would you hand out money? Is college tennis a big part of the developmental process? How should wildcards be handed out? 

I currently feel as though the USTA Player Development program is in complete disarray. The coaching staff doesn't like it. The players can't stand it. No-one is happy and no-one is improving. What would I do to fix it? Well thats a pretty big open ended question where I don’t have a lot of the information to make informed decisions. Obviously I think its important to grow the game of tennis at a grass roots level so we have more athletes playing the game at an earlier age. With that said, I think there has to be a limited number of top level coaches who evaluate talent and help kids through their development process. I think the sports science department must be diligent with tracking their development as well and if you can tell kids are slacking off or don't want it, then kick them out of the program. It should be an earned right to train and work with the best coaches in the world. I also feel as though their should be a sports psychologist on staff that is paid to work with the top players in the country. Tennis is 90% mental and the players who know how to fight and win and handle the pressure, are the ones that are winning. And I think more investment needs to be made into the minds of these tennis players. Regarding grants, college tennis involvement, training facilities, etc. I'd have to look at the investment and the potential payoffs before I make any decisions. But clearly these national training centers have been a complete waste. Unfortunately, the USTA is very slow to act and it takes us years to evaluate decisions. Wildcards? Ohhhh thats a whole other subject. It used to drive me crazy how we'd give the same players wildcards where they feel entitled to the opportunities and don't earn them. I think there should be a very different system in place where only so many wildcards are given a year and the best player has the chance to rise to the top. Right now, we give too many free passes to guys who ultimately never make it. 

Right now, the USTA has 10 National Coaches on the Men's and Women's side. Each coach is responsible for a certain birth year and gender. However, for professional development- maybe the USTA could give a small portion of the budget to giving professionals a fair chance at the professional tour instead of a high number of USTA National Coaches. What if we gave $50,000 to the top 50 American men's players in the ATP rankings? That is only $2.5 million. Players will earn there spots and be given a fair chance at attacking the professional tour in a professional manner- hiring a coach, trainer, eating right, etc. 

It is a good idea but don't forget the importance of employing top level coaches for the players. Do I think all the coaches need to be located at a national tennis center complex? Absolutely not. I think thats ridiculous to expect the best coaches in the world to all live in 2 cities in the United States. However, I'm hoping the current President of the USTA knows the importance of having top American players on the last week of the US Open and how that can drive ratings, earnings for the company and hence, would be more willing to spend more on player development. 

From your experience, how prevalent is steroid abuse in the Futures, Challengers, and all the way up to the best players in the world? Do you know of players personally who have benefited from steroids and is this a problem we should be worried about, especially in the minor leagues of tennis? 

This is a very tough issue to discuss and very delicate when it comes to the ATP. We don't want to get into a situation that MLB is currently in where no-one trusts statistics and we doubt everyone's accomplishments. With that said, of course there are players who use steroids on the pro tour and most players have a good idea of who they are. However, there are so many 'masking' substances out there now to help flush out a players system that if you pay attention, you will not get caught. It's indicated very early on in a tournament when 'drug testing' will be going on and lots of guys flush it out of their system. Do I think it goes on at the college level? Honestly, in my day, I didn't see too much of it. I ran into most cases in the junior levels where there wasn't much testing and then in the futures and challenger level when everyone is looking for the edge. Players often justify it to themselves by saying, 'well if everyone else is doing it, then its okay if I do it because I'm just evening the playing field.' The real question for me is if there will always be kids out there who are comfortable cheating to win or get ahead and life. And that question will always be yes and so we will always continue to have a problem. I just hope the ATP and ITF does enough research into the matter so that it doesn’t become as prevalent as baseball. 

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Reader Comments (1)

love the props for jerry baskin - he's my son's coach, too! brian has some very interesting insights, especially pertaining to taking the college route.

December 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLisa S

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