Special report: Tennis' last taboo - why are there no openly gay male players?

Charlie Eccleshare
The Telegraph
Brian Vahaly, who came out after the end of his career, wants to create an environment where players feel comfortable coming out - Telegraph
Brian Vahaly, who came out after the end of his career, wants to create an environment where players feel comfortable coming out - Telegraph

At first glance, men's tennis appears a model of diversity. At next week's Australian Open, the first grand slam of the year, there will be 10 countries and five different continents represented in the world top 10 alone. As Jamie Murray puts it: "We have players from all over the world, all different cultures, many walks of life."

And yet in spite of the multiculturalism, there is still one great anomaly at the heart of the men's game: the absence of any openly homosexual players. In almost 150 years of being an organised sport, only two openly gay men have ever played the sport at elite level, both of whom competed primarily before the Second World War - multiple grand-slam champion Gottfried von Cramm, who was arrested for homosexuality in Nazi Germany, and the American 10-time major winner Bill Tilden. A third gay player, America's former world No. 63 Brian Vahaly, came out publicly in 2017 - a decade after he had retired. 

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Vahaly revealed to The Telegraph last August that a handful of professional players, and around 30 at junior and college level, have told him privately that they are gay, but have opted against going public. Vahaly is sure there are many more, and wants to create as welcoming and understanding environment as possible to help them come out should they want to. They are, he believes, "scared" of revealing their true selves to the wider world. 

In the absence of LGBT trailblazers like Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova in the women's game - and more recently openly gay players like Belgium's Alison Van Uytvanck - Vahaly looks to have his work cut out. Because the question is not whether there are more gay male players, but why there is still a taboo around homosexuality in the sport.

The reality is that the most homosexuality in men's tennis will be discussed this year will be in relation to the ongoing controversy surrounding Australia's Margaret Court, the 24-time grand slam winner. Court, a Pentecostal minister, regularly denounces homosexuals but the second biggest arena at the Australian Open still bears her name, despite pleas from King and others to rebrand it. 

<span>The 24-time major champion Margaret Court has viciously attacked the gay community</span> <span>Credit: PA </span>
The 24-time major champion Margaret Court has viciously attacked the gay community Credit: PA

According to the players themselves, men's tennis has never been more welcoming. The Telegraph spoke to 25 players at the elite level from world No. 1 Novak Djokovic to doubles players further down the hierarchy, and the vast majority insisted the locker room would completely support someone coming out. Djokovic's view was typical: "I actually see that as a really courageous move. I wouldn't have anything against that, absolutely. I mean, it's everybody's right to have sexual orientation as they desire, any kind of direction in life they desire. I respect it." Other leading players like Roger Federer, Kevin Anderson, John Isner and Marin Cilic expressed similar sentiments.

Neither would a gay player have to fear being commercially ostracised, which was a consideration for Vahaly in the 2000s. 

Quite the opposite - the indications are that many companies would celebrate the courage of someone coming out and rush to support them. "There's far greater understanding of the issues now, and there would likely be a great deal of interest from commercial backers," says sports marketing consultant Nigel Currie. 

Tennis also benefits from the absence of ferociously partisan crowds, which in theory should reduce the fear players have in coming out. It is not a sport like football where the homophobic abuse from the stands could be savage. 

And yet, in spite of this supposedly hospitable climate, tennis's wait for a first openly gay active male player since the 1940s continues. Why? 

'It's not easy - there's so much homophobia'

Justin Gimelstob, the former world No. 63 who is currently defending himself against assault allegations in the US, offered an insight into the locker room's culture 11 years ago. "The locker room couldn’t be a more homophobic place," he said. "We’re not gay-bashing. There’s just a lot of positive normal hetero talk about pretty girls and working out and drinking beer."

Vahaly endorses that view - he says he heard homophobic comments "all the time" in this period - and while there is little doubt that locker room attitudes have become more progressive since then, there are isolated incidents which give pause for thought. Ukraine's Sergiy Stakhovsky said in 2017 that he would not encourage his daughter to play tennis because "on the WTA tour, almost every other player is a lesbian", while Pierre-Hugues Herbert, a three-time doubles grand-slam champion, believes it would be harder to come out than some outsiders realise. "I don’t think it’s going to be easy because there is so much homophobia," he suggests.

There is also a more subtle lack of understanding from some players that helps to explain why a player might feel uncomfortable coming out. While Herbert and I spoke, his doubles partner Nicolas Mahut twice made jokes about the pair being a gay couple. Other doubles players like Colombia's Robert Farah made similar jokes that were not necessarily homophobic in intent but seemed to come more from a place of ignorance. 

It was also curious to hear how many players said they would welcome a gay player, but only if they showed "respect". The former Wimbledon doubles champion Marcelo Melo, for instance, said: "If they keep respect with the players, I’m not going to stop talking to someone who says they’re gay. But he has to have respect a lot, this is the most important thing. I think you have problems when they don’t respect each other."

Geography can also play a part in framing attitudes, with many players on tour coming from countries where homosexuality is largely abhorred. 

Herbert believes "it would be easier for someone from certain places but maybe not somewhere in Russia," while grand slam doubles finalist Juan Sebastian Cabal says, of his native Colombia, "we’re still a bit more conservative. If you go to towns and smaller cities it’s way more judged."

Even players who hail from socially liberal countries inevitably live sheltered lives within the professional tennis bubble, away from the socially diverse realities of many of the cities they are playing in on tour. It is no surprise they make the odd comment that might make someone uncomfortable about revealing their true sexual identity.  

"Most players don’t have a lot of exposure to LGBT people themselves, and so they don’t know what they don’t know," Vahaly says. "So much of what I learned about myself was after I came out."

'Coming out makes you vulnerable'

Changing attitudes within the locker room is one challenge; it is quite another to expect someone to embrace the role of advocate for gay players, and the maelstrom of publicity that would surely follow.  

"I don’t have an advocacy personality," Vahaly says, addressing his reluctance to come out and be defined as 'the gay tennis player' while he was still active on tour, or in the years immediately afterwards when he first entered into a same-sex relationship. 

Now he's a father, however, Vahaly feels a sense of responsibility to be open. "My life changed when I had two twin boys," he says. "But I totally respect and understand that a gay player now may say: 'Hey, this isn’t my gig and I don’t want to be that person'."

There are good reasons to think this could also put that player at a competitive disadvantage in their day job. Naomi Cavaday, the former British No. 3, believes that the locker room can be a brutal place, where opponents will latch onto anything they think will make their opponent uncomfortable, and the notion that a player's honesty about their sexuality could be exploited by an opponent desperate to find an edge is not far-fetched.

Indeed, according to Andy Lane, a sports psychologist at the Centre for Health and Human Performance (CHHP), one of the most consistent traits in sportspeople is hiding any characteristic that could be seized upon as a point of differentiation. "Sport is all about protecting your inner self, and top athletes will withhold anything they think could be a potential weakness," Lane says.

The Austrian doubles specialist Alexander Peya agrees. "Sure, coming out makes you vulnerable to that sort of thing [criticism]. Anything that maybe could be explored as a weakness.   

"Being gay is not a weakness, of course, but I think it’s just the way sport works. It’s man against man or team against team. If you’re open to talk about something that worries you or is tricky in some moments, it’s not always easy."

'It needs the right person at the right time'

If a gay male player is to break the mould in the sport in the next 10 to 20 years - as Vahaly hopes - then encouraging openness and acceptance will be paramount. 

The Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) have pledged to incorporate more discussion of LGBTQ issues as part of their welfare programme, as well as more knowledge sharing with the Women's Tour Association (WTA), but at the moment the main driver is coming from elsewhere. 

American tennis journalist Nick McCarvel has been at the forefront of promoting the inclusivity message, hosting an event with Vahaly ahead of the US Open to try and encourage dialogue and understanding about homosexuality in sport. 

<span>Vahaly is hopeful that tennis will become more inclusive&nbsp;</span> <span>Credit: Getty Images&nbsp; </span>
Vahaly is hopeful that tennis will become more inclusive  Credit: Getty Images 

After the success of the event, which was supported on Twitter by players like Anderson and Isner and included a video message about inclusivity from former world No. 4 James Blake, McCarvel will host another discussion prior to the Australian Open - this time with ex-NBA star and gay trailblazer Jason Collins. The event is in association with Tennis Australia, who have also been running diversity and inclusion activities in the lead up to the Australian Open. 

So, as 2019 begins, are we any closer to having an openly gay, male player? "Absolutely," Vahaly says. "It needs a person who is at the top of their game and consistently playing at the grand slams to say: ‘Hey, this is me take it or leave it’. But they must also recognise that the world and the sport supports them. It’s just going to take the right person at the right time."

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