Vasek Pospisil — informal chat with a nice guy from Canada

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In the Persian Gulf area to photograph the Dubai Duty Free tennis tournament, I somehow got invited to the players party outside the hotel adjacent to the stadium.

Guests and organizers were flocking to take photos with Roger Federer and even dance with Novak Djokovic (who dominated the dance floor past midnight).

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Two of the nicest guys in sports, they have real star quality — they look you in the eye at press conferences and share jokes with you — but they are also multi-millionaire international celebrities shielded by coteries of guards, agents or handlers. Even fellow players can’t easily hang with them.

Away from the action, there was a tall guy loading up his plate at the buffet. He was by himself. Vasek Pospisil, Wimbledon doubles champion, a rising star from British Columbia, but relatively unknown to many scene-sters at the party.

I wanted to talk to him, because I actually hit with him in Vancouver when he was about 12 years old. Playing with my girlfriend at that time, I noticed this talented boy practicing with another junior. I invited him over to hit with me. I tried to overpower him, since I was a full-grown adult, but the fuzzy-haired kid sent everything back, with interest. He eventually found my weakness and put the ball there seemingly at will. I eventually gave up and let him get back to serious training.

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I didn’t know his name at that time, nor realize he was one of the world’s top juniors. But years later, when I saw the adult Pospisil playing on TV, I knew it was him: the same grin and ruddy cheeks, the same expressions when he watched or struck the ball. It was unmistakeable. 

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At the Dubai party, he sat with his coach and trainer at a large round table on the grass, not far from ducks waddling in and out of a pond. As he went up for a second plate, I went over and introduced myself. He kindly smiled for a photo — something I normally wouldn’t do at a tournament, since I’m already granted the professional privilege of photographing the world’s greatest tennis players up close.

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Pospisil laughed when I told him about us hitting together, and we tried to figure out which court it was: Kitsilano High School or another court on Vancouver’s west side. (It was probably Kitsilano, where he often trained with other juniors. He tells his own life stories here: http://www.vasekpospisil.com)

I asked if I could join him and chat informally for a while. I mentioned I’m a “tennis fan first, journalist second”, and I wasn’t taking notes or recording our conversation. 

We ended up chatting for more than an hour about music, family, tennis and life-stuff. I kept trying to give him an out to return to his room, but he seemed to enjoy the conversation on a balmy night in Dubai.

He’s soft-spoken, thoughtful, and more fascinating than I realized from watching him on TV. He’s really into alternative music and learning new moves on his Canadian-made acoustic guitar. His favorites include The Shins, Arcade Fire and The Lumineers, as well as the works of his father and brothers. I told him about the music of my own brothers (Gordie Johnson of Big Sugar, Grady and Sit Down Servant; Michael Louis Johnson of Lemon Bucket Orkestra, the New Kings, Big Rude Jake and other bands including Broken Social Scene).

We talked about how playing guitar can tame the savage beast and expand one’s soul power. We also talked about sports psychology and Buddhism. He talked about the importance of confidence, of being in the moment, and playing by instinct rather than thinking too much. I mentioned the Buddhist teaching of learning to accept one’s own suffering, and how it helped me acknowledge my own weaknesses as an avid amateur player and a pro journalist.  

What struck me about Vasek was his eagerness to learn. He was more interested in hearing my stories (about various wars and disasters) than telling his own. Though I tried to switch the conversation back to tennis, out of respect for him as an athlete, he kept asking me about my own life. What’s it really like in a war zone? Can journalists earn a proper living these days? How do you deal with fear and danger?

I tried to answer with lessons he could apply to his own career. I talked about brinksmanship and learning to measure degrees of relative safety and danger; how to calculate risks and rewards; and how to avoid traps and create exit strategies. Somehow, I was relating Baghdad or Kobani to decisions about whether to attack from the baseline or the net. Vasek was taking it all in, listening and trying to understand on deeper levels.

I kept trying to give him a way out to wrap up the conversation on a polite note and go back to his room to rest. But he kept hanging around chatting, long after his coach and trainer were gone.

How rare is this type of athlete in the sports world? 

I’m not his biggest fan, but Toronto-based writer Cathal Kelly makes provocative points about how dehumanizing the player-media relationship can be. (http://www.theglobeandmail.com/sports/hockey/kelly-a-lesson-in-media-relations-for-phil-kessel/article23276623/)

Pospisil, on the other hand, seems to be the shining example of the nice-guy athlete. In his low-key, unassuming way, he’s the model of the earnest Canadian kid rising up the ranks on his own terms by working hard, being himself, and staying true to his friends and family. 4I3A02624I3A0254 

When a local junior player came around, asking for a selfie and the chance to hit with him, I thought it might be awkward for Vasek due to his busy schedule. As a full-time touring pro, Vasek didn’t have to do this. But he did. He exchanged contact details and said he would try to make time after the tournament. (Vasek later told me how much he valued older pros such as Mario Ancic taking him under their wings.)

The teenager (of South Asian origin) was delighted. You could see a spark in his eyes; this brief encounter would motivate his own budding tennis career.

Vasek wasn’t only doing this because a journalist was around. He’s gone out of his way to work with kids through various Tennis Canada, National Bank and other initiatives. In some ways, he’s still the kid playing with his older brothers on the cracked courts at the school near his house in Vernon. He’s still eager to learn and improve and make everybody happy.

That’s a pretty cool person to be, no matter the results or rankings.

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(words and images by Christopher Johnson Globalite Media, all rights reserved, except for screenshots of Vasek Pospisil’s own images of his junior days.)

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