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By Richard Pagliaro | Tuesday, October 26, 2021

 
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"When you’re in fitness, you’re changing people’s lives for the better," says YouFit CEO Brian Vahaly.

Photo credits: YouFit Gym/Brian Vahaly

During his playing days on the ATP Tour, Brian Vahaly viewed every day as leg day.

A three-time All American at the University of Virginia where he played for Dick Stockton and earned a BS degree in Finance and Business Management, Vahaly transitioned to the pro tour practicing the pain game.

More: All Aboard the Real Federer Express

When he wasn’t busy trying to grind opponents down on court, Vahaly was in the gym doing squats with a pointed purpose: physical break point.

“When I was competing, I tried to take people’s legs out,” Vahaly says. “Because I found that was the best way to impact an opponent’s decision making.

“Some players had better shots than I did, but I knew if I would take their legs out and make them tired, they’d miss more frequently.”

These days, Vahaly is devoted to strengthening mind, body and spirit as Chief Executive Officer, YouFit, the nationwide chain of affordable, personalized fitness clubs.

YouFit Gyms yesterday announced a company-wide rebrand, including a new name, new personalized services and “a renewed commitment to providing top value to members at its traditional low cost.”

Under Vahaly’s guidance, YouFit Gyms, formerly YouFit Health Clubs, has emerged from bankruptcy with a bold game-plan in the face of a shifting fitness landscape. YouFit Gyms announced it is investing more than $20 million to fully update and renovate all 80 facilities in 10 states.

In addition, YouFit Gyms will now offer members access to affordable on-site personal training, first-of-its-kind nutritional resources through a new partnership with EatLove, and YouFit On Demand, a series of virtual classes created for at-home workouts, helping to facilitate a hybrid model option for members.

“We are a completely new YouFit,” Vahaly says. “After listening closely to our members, we recognize that people start their fitness journeys expecting results and it’s our responsibility to provide everything they need to make them successful.

"A large part of our commitment is to make personal training affordable for everyone with pricing as low as $30 per session.”

YouFit has 80 gyms nationwide. The brand’s mission statement is to provide “a personalized, accessible and inclusive place for all to get fit and take charge of their well-being.”

It’s a personal quest for Vahaly, who reached a career-high rank of No. 64, is currently the only gay player in history to ever come out on the ATP tour and serves on the board of directors for the United States Tennis Association.

In his role on the USTA board of directors, Vahaly helped launch the first US Open Pride Day on Wednesday, September 1st in Flushing Meadows.

We caught up with the 42-year-old New Jersey native for this interview; Vahaly discusses rebranding YouFit, his views on tennis and fitness, his optimism over the immediate future of American tennis, the USTA’s decision-making during the pandemic and why he believes we could see a top gay male player come out in the coming years.

Tennis Now: Why did you decide to take on this challenge, particularly post-pandemic where perhaps some Americans are apprehensive about returning to health clubs?

Brian Vahaly: Since my tennis days, I’ve been working primarily doing operational turnarounds. For me, I feel it’s what I really love. What I loved about tennis was the adrenaline out on the court. There’s a tremendous amount of adrenaline in the turnaround process so I like that piece of it.

Secondly, it’s in fitness space—I’ve got a decent amount of experience I was CFO of solidcore, working in a boutique fitness environment. So for me, it just felt like the perfect fit. And then I think YouFit has been around 14, 15 years, run by the founder. And I think this is just a great opportunity to shift it in a little bit of a new direction. To think about what kind of virtual training people wanted coming out of COVID, what kind of small group training do people want?

You know a lot of boutique fitness works really well—we need to have a competitive product to that. So rolling out classes and interval training for our customers. And looking at what we’ve got in the gym and why. I think we had the same consistent model year in and year out and a lot of the competition caught up to YouFit—even though it was way ahead of its time 10 or 15 years ago—but now is the time to really look at: what do people want when they come to the gym, especially now coming out of COVID. You can work out at home so what do you need to specifically come and drive to the gym and experience strength training, which is very important for both seniors and young people. So we’ve added the right equipment as well and all that gets encapsulated in a new brand.

TN: When you look at the fitness industry post-pandemic do you think virtual training will become more popular? Or do you think people have so much pent-up energy from being confined or quarantine during lockdown that there will be a bigger demand to get back to gyms and health clubs? Basically, what do you see as the future for fitness in America and what are you doing to adapt to that future?

Brian Vahaly: I think it’s going to be a little bit of a hybrid approach. Up until being at home, working from home, working out at home—it’s just a lot inside your house—and so I would say in general virtual training is a great addition to your workout program. But I don’t think people saw the results they thought that would see. I think there’s a small sample who did and I still want to provide that product for them.

We’ve partnered with Les Mills for YouFit on Demand, which is a great at-home product when you need it. Ultimately, I think people are going to find results getting into the gym doing strength training, having access to equipment and machines that just doesn’t make sense to have inside your house. So to me, yes people are coming back it’s a matter of when they feel safe. And ultimately, when they’re ready for results I think there’s going to be a big uptick in January once people probably over-eat and over-serve themselves over the holidays.

YouFit

TN: Do you feel YouFit’s competitive edge is personalized training at a more reasonable rate? Or is it more just trying to get more people into the gym?

Brian Vahaly: At our core, we believe in affordable access to fitness. Number one, we need to have price points for personal training as low as $30. We think that helps entry level people who don’t know where to go or people who need additional accountability, so that’s really important.

Secondly, is how we provide small-group training at an affordable price. So maybe you want to go to Orangetheory or some of these other great boutique brands but you don’t want to spend $150 a month to do that. We can provide a place for that. Suppose you’re looking on the nutrition side, you want to talk to a nutritionist and you don’t know where to start. We have a nutrition program as part of our discounted rate. So to me, if you look at the fundamentals at what produces results if people join a fitness program it’s because they want some kind of results whether it’s mental health, building muscle, losing weight—we needed to have all of those things in house.

And if we could do it as a company, great, and if not, we need to partner with somebody, who can offer it at a discounted rate to provide that accessibility. Because if people are eating right and working out correctly, then there’s no reason they can’t get the results they want.

TN: For you personally, when you were at the peak of your playing days how much of your training was on court and how much was off court and in the gym. And now given your shift to the business career how has that changed?

Brian Vahaly: When I was on the pro tour, you would do a lot of cardio on the court. It was a lot of sprint work, a lot of biometric work. And then you would probably go into the gym about four to five days a week. Now that would change based on where you were in the season. It was all about periodization and what tournaments were coming up and when you should lift weights and when you should pull back. So you always had to be flexible and train according to your schedule.

Walking away from that, and now stepping into the business world and having kids it’s really hard to find the time. For me, I have to go into the gym, get really thoughtful about what I’m doing on the cardio side, be thoughtful about lifting weights and be as efficient as I can with the hour or hour and a half that I have to work out. That’s important to me for my own anxiety and mental health as it is to the way I want to feel. So it’s just different overall.

Playing tennis, you’re training four or five hours a day whereas now it’s like you’re lucky if you can sneak out an hour in the morning to get a workout in.

TN: Coming out of the pandemic and drawing on your experience as a tennis pro, a USTA board member, a businessman, what do you see for the growth of tennis recreationally in the United States? Do you see tennis poised for growth as a participation sport? Do you see pickleball and other activities cutting into that growth? What do you see happening?

Brian Vahaly: The growth of tennis was relatively flat for a long time. A lot of other sports were pulling back at a faster rate. So in some cases we knew were competing with the phone, video games, with kids not being as active as they once were.

You know, COVID was a big game-changer, certainly for the sport, I want to say it grew about 25 to 40 percent with people getting back out on the court. So for us at the USTA, the question is now how do I convert those people and encourage them to continue to play? What’s the right amateur league? Are there tournaments? Are we providing visibility for them so it’s not just playing at the local court, but how can we take it a step further to get them engaged in the game?

So with that said, I think it’s a huge win just to get people out there. And I love now that it went from going to see courts that were in worse and worse shape to now going to public courts that are packed, and there’s a line and things are getting more involved. So I’m really excited about it and I haven’t seen this level of momentum in tennis since almost the early 1980s.

Brian Vahaly

TN: Initially, the USTA came under some skepticism and criticism for hosting the 2020 US Open yet you have to say they did a terrific job in both keeping everyone safe and also running a Grand Slam successfully during the pandemic.

The 2021 US Open again surprised as some people were suggesting no Roger, no Rafa, no Serena, no Venus this could suck. And it turned out to be one of the most exciting and most engaging US Opens we’ve seen in years. My question is obviously this was an unprecedented issue with no playbook for running a Slam during a pandemic. So with that in mind: What did the USTA do right during this pandemic? What mistakes were made or what areas do you look back and say: we can learn from this or we could do that better?

Brian Vahaly: I think what went exceptionally well was the 2020 Open. It was the first Grand Slam we had after everything was just getting cancelled because of the pandemic.

So to manage that COVID uncertainty with people coming from all different counties and having so few positive COVID tests, I mean it was pretty amazing. The players were frustrated back then and now they look back and go: Wow, that was such an amazing experience. So you talk about unprecedented, talk about the way the staff stepped up and it was unbelievable.

Then, you look at this year. We found out a couple of weeks prior that it was going to require a full vaccination for every fan coming on site. That’s a massive undertaking that you have to turn around in a matter of weeks. So just the ability to pivot and move and run successful tournaments—especially once some of your star players are not there—I just feel it’s a shock to not only see the fans coming but to see how engaged they were for all these incredible and exciting newcomers coming onto the scene at the US Open. So for me, just the execution of that was exceptional.

I think as far as the areas of opportunities, there’s some things you didn’t know like we didn’t realize this uptick in tennis would be so strong. We provided guidelines to people like here’s what safe social distancing looks like in tennis and we tried to provide the right platform for it, but we had no idea the volume or that it was going to be so big.

So could we, from a technology standpoint, have been more prepared to handle the uptick and rise in people coming in the door? Absolutely, and I think that’s a real big focus now for the USTA going forward.

How do we create technology solutions to make it easier for parents to engage, for players to engage, just depending on where you are in your life and relationship to the game. Maybe you’re in your 20s and you want something different than your 40s and 50s. We've really got to step up our game there and it’s a great problem to have because the demand for tennis is just so high.



TN: The big story before the 2022 Australian Open is will the government mandate players must be vaccinated to play or will unvaccinated players be subject to a two-week quarantine. Question: Where do you come down on the 2022 Australian Open and potentially mandating vaccines?

Brian Vahaly: It’s a really hard question. I think it’s going to be the hardest question tennis faces this year whether we’re going to mandate vaccination for the players. It’s a decision I’m not going to be making.

I think back to my days as a player and how would I feel if someone was mandating something on me and what does that look like? I certainly stand on the side of doing what you feel is right. It’s the same reason I got vaccinated. It’s the same reason why everyone on our board is vaccinated and I feel strongly it’s the right decision.

I’m very interested to see what Australia’s going to do and what will follow suit. I don’t necessarily have a comment on what I think is right. I understand the players’ perspective, but we need to be working hard to get people vaccinated across the world. We’ve got to be careful about what message that sends when you come to the US Open and only the players aren’t vaccinated but everyone else—the staff, the maintenance team, security, everyone else on site is—so it’s a tricky spot.

The mandate is a tough thing, but if you do pull back the layer on that we do mandate a lot of things in this country that we’ve all sort of got accustomed to.



TN: In your playing career you faced some of the best of the best—Agassi, Hewitt, Juan Carlos Ferrero to name a few—who was the toughest player you ever faced? And who was the player whose game just made you feel like wow, this guy just showed me a level of this sport I’ve never experienced before? Who was your most eye-opening opponent?

Brian Vahaly: I got a chance to compete against Federer in the juniors. That’s very different from Federer in his prime. However, I will say Federer’s the only one I ever watched where I was blown away and just intimidated just by watching him. Back in 2006 and 2007, Federer’s level was just scary for me to watch.

TN: When you say Federer’s level was scary specifically do you mean the level of athleticism, the shot-making, the movement, the explosiveness?

Brian Vahaly: The shot-making was unbelievable. The athleticism was unique. A lot of athletic people you can see it and feel it. Federer was just gliding across the court. He was so athletic; you couldn’t even see it coming. I just loved to watch Federer play.

A lot of times when you’re facing other players you can out-compete them in some areas. You may have shots better than them so it’s a chess match. You may know how to compete better in the big moments. So even if they have a better shot you know how to compete so you’re not intimidated.

For me, the biggest challenge was Agassi. Because there was nothing I could do that Agassi couldn’t do better. So there was nowhere to go. We played in DC, we played in Australia. I think I gave him one of the closest matches when he won the Australian Open that year [2003]. But it never felt like I was one or two points away.

Agassi's backhand was better, his forehand was better, his volleys better, his serve was better—everything was better. And Agassi just hit the ball so hard. For me he was just my toughest opponent. Not to say other players aren’t better than him, but at least you could mentally think to yourself: okay if I take this tactic maybe I have a shot. Against Agassi, I didn’t know where to go.

Agassi was constantly hitting the ball with incredible depth, incredible speed, just moving you across the court on his terms. There was just no way for me to play my game. Even if I felt like I had one of the best backhands he could just hammer it back even harder. They were fun matches to play. It’s fun to play in front of that crowd, but I can tell you it’s really hard to play against Agassi and to play against the crowd because the crowd always supported Agassi. I was just sort of the annoying underdog.

TN: From an American perspective, we haven’t had a male Grand Slam singles champion since Roddick. At the same time, there’s a lot of young Americans—whether it’s Coco, Brooksby, Opelka, Fritz, Sebi Korda—to be excited about. Do you watch the American game as a fan and if so who are you excited about?

Brian Vahaly: It’s fun during the Open because you go to the matches, you watch the practices you see how the players are hitting, how they’re feeling. A lot of it is I look for what their attitude is like.

A lot of players are happy to be there, some expect to be there and some expect to win. And so when you see Korda he’s got an attitude and approach that I really like. Brooksby is really impressive out there taking the set against Djokovic.

You can tell when someone’s intimidated out there, they’re going to lose before they’re even really out there playing. I think what’s nice about this new crop of Americans is they’ve all come together, they’ve all worked together and they believe in themselves. It’s up to them how they’re going to do. Historically, you always had to make it by the time you’re 22 or 24 but now the careers are getting longer so we’ve got a bit more time. As long as we’re patient with these results as Federer drops, as Nadal is done as Djokovic moves on there’s going to be an opportunity there. And I think these guys have the right mentality for it. So I am encouraged. I think it’s too soon to know where to place your chips, but there’s plenty of players there who believe they should win and that’s great.

I grew up with Roddick and Ginepri and Fish and Taylor Dent. The more you start to see people win it’s like well if they can beat these guys I can too. I know I can compete with Mardy [Fish] so if he can beat them why shouldn’t I? You’ve got to have the belief and be willing to compete hard enough to think it’s possible. It helps to see your peers do it regardless of whether they end up being better than you. It makes it a little more tangible.

TN: The US Open produced the successful pride event this summer. Given your experience are we near a point where a Top 25 male player will come out as gay in the coming years and how do you think that player would be accepted in tennis?

Brian Vahaly: It’s funny because I’m having conversations with the ATP right, running a bunch of data, surveys, in how can we make the environment as accepting as possible?

How can we be thoughtful about the words players are using and about the environment that’s being created so we can have a data-driven decision on what be helpful.

I’m not measuring success here by having a Top 25 player who comes out as gay. I think for me it’s just have we continued to provide the atmosphere so that maybe similar to what we’ve seen in other sports where somebody comes out and maybe it’s not as big of a deal. I am hopeful that things about the pride event that we did at the US Open, which I’m incredibly proud of, will set the table.

You just want kids to see it. You want kids to know that they’re accepted. You want players to see other players wearing a rainbow wristband and it’s not that big of a deal. Or you’ll hear Djokovic or Federer or Zverev talk about it and say “Yeah, I’d be fine with it.” Just hearing those things and the language shift and not using the F-word so publicly. They may say they don’t have motive behind it, but it sends a message.

So really being careful about the environment means inevitably we’ll get there. Regardless if that person is Top 25, Top 50, Top 60, Top 75 or whatever…I think we’re a few years out, but I think we’re on our way.

TN: Do you think it’s important for juniors to see someone who is out and visible, and is accepted as a top player? Just so that they can see this is achievable, this is attainable for someone gay.

Brian Vahaly: I certainly think it can’t hurt because I know it will take a lot of courage for an active player to take that stand. When I think back to my career, I’ve been training since I was four years old, I accomplished a lot, had some great wins, am I ready to put my career on the line for this?

It’s like man at that point in time, especially in the 2000s, you felt you career was only going to be six to nine years tops. The prospect of playing too long after 30 just wasn’t in the cards back then.

My rotator cuff got me at 27, 28. So there was just no reason to do the work to rehab because you’re done by the time you come back. So as the career gets longer, I think maybe people would have thought about it a little differently. I think as sponsorships are going in that direction. As soon as you see it safely in other sports I know we’ve got a fighting chance.

Would I think it would be easier, yes, but I know there’s a lot of pressure on that person who does it. Or perceived pressure. I think as we’ve seen with [Raiders defensive end] Carl Nassib in the NFL, it was interesting for a couple of days and not much since. And to me, if there was anyplace it was going to be difficult it was a place like the NFL.

The challenge in tennis is it’s international. So there are certain counties you go to, where it’s not legal. So that was certainly in my forefront. I know of at least 50 percent of the guys who are not for gay rights and then on top of it you’re going into countries where you’re not welcome. So you’ve got to think about this game is not just played in places where it’s accepted. It’s played in Doha and places where maybe it’s not accepted.



TN: You make good points. At the same time for every Carl Nassib there’s a Jon Gruden, so maybe it’s like you take a step forward then a step back…

Brian Vahaly: It’s sometimes a step forward, sometimes backward, sometimes a step sideways. In the States, we sometimes think of our liberal markets and say this is great there’s nothing to be worried about. But you’ve got to think about the outskirts of Spain, France, Germany, Egypt, you know we’re playing all over the world.

It's just the culture is very different in some of those places so you know I think there’s a lot of variables there. On top of whether people have a religious fear or concern on top of what their families might think. It’s a very complex thing. I certainly know other former professional tennis players that are gay—they’re just not ready [to come out]. And they have every reason to not be ready and that’s okay.

TN: Tennis is a very unique and intimate sport because players are exposed out there in the sense that you’re not wearing masks or helmets, the crowd is right there. You hear them, they hear you, there’s nowhere to hide.

Brian Vahaly: Fans say some rough things already. I got an earful many times I can tell you.

TN: Just to try to wrap this conversation back where we began talking about fitness. Comparing today’s era of tennis to your pro days how much more physical is the sport today and how important is the fitness aspect for the top players now?

Brian Vahaly: The intensity has picked up. The training has picked up. The depth of the sport continues to grow. Guys are hitting the ball harder, they’re stronger. The sport is incredibly deep as far as talent goes.

It just requires more. When I showed up at my first Grand Slam, I couldn’t afford a coach to go with me. The money was different. Back in those days I think first round at a Slam was $15,000 and now it’s $75,000. So as more money gets put into the game you see more entourages to make it work.

How do I take all that into YouFit? I love fitness. I enjoy working out. I love what it does for my mind and enjoy what it does for my body. It’s fun to be a part of something that brings the level of education and results to people and society. It’s just nice to feel part of that. When you’re in fitness, you’re changing people’s lives for the better.

For me, to be able to take the education I gained from so many great trainers, so many great physios and incorporate that and create a great experience at a local level it couldn’t be more interesting. Between that and serving on the board of the USTA I feel very grateful and fortunate. I retired from playing tennis and still found these great careers.

TN: Tennis is a lifetime sport—what are the physical and mental benefits you’ve seen from your career in tennis and now fitness?

Brian Vahaly: Think about COVID and coming out of COVID, there’s been tremendous anxiety over the past year and a half. It was a new challenge for me: sort of nowhere to go. Part of what I always loved about working out is the mental health component.

So everything you’re seeing around Osaka and everybody being more comfortable talking about mental health in general, I think of mental health in two ways. Number one, the sport psychologist I’ve had for over 20 years that’s important for my own development and then second is exercise.

You need two pieces of that so I love pulling people in not necessarily just for the traditional weight loss, new person-new you, but for the mental health benefits as well. Listen, it’s been a hard year and a half for people. It’s hard to be home all the time. It’s hard not seeing people all the time. And I think people will be amazed at how their mental health shifts through two to three months of getting into the gym. So it feels good to feel a part of that.

In tennis, I’d like to thank some of our athletes like Naomi Osaka and Mardy Fish who have normalized discussions about mental health so it’s okay to talk about. That’s very important.


 

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