Call it divine intervention or another man falling prey to the machinations of a woman, à la Adam circa Genesis, but tennis was destined to play a role in Nesbert “Nessy” Vaval’s life. The 22-year-old Desruisseaux native just wrapped up his freshman season at Asbury College in Kentucky with a Conference title, recognition as an outstanding player, and a trip to nationals. But his induction to the sport was dubious at best.
“When I started two friends tricked me into coming to watch tennis just for the girls. I actually hated tennis to tell you the truth. I thought it was boring and stupid. And then I went to watch and I ended up playing,” he recalled with a laugh.
The then 12-year-old form one student of the Vieux-Fort Comprehensive Secondary School was bitten by the bug. He started beginner classes at Oms Tennis Academy under the watch of Anthony Biscette. Within a year the crafty left-hander had moved into the advanced group but was cognizant of his limitations.
“I was not at the level that the guys were because they were playing long before me, but through my determination I kept on. I did private lessons. I was probably playing seven days a week during the summer time. During school only on weekends, but during summer 8 am until 6 pm, or when my dad would come to pick me up. I just loved the sport and wanted to get better,” he explained.
There were drawbacks to playing in the south and lack of tournament play was one of them. This meant travelling to Castries at 5 am for a match at 8 am in Gros-Islet. The sacrifices served to fuel, rather than diminish, Vaval’s drive.
“I think what kept me playing is that it’s an individual sport and I always control the outcome for the majority of the time. So that kept me in and I have a never-quit attitude as far as determination and motivation,” he said.
Following graduation Vaval was eager to strengthen his game and signed up for a camp, where Biscette had once coached, in New York. He got a taste of professional tennis playing at the famed Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows, Queens, home of one of the grand slams, the U.S. Open.
“It was fun. I trained on the known courts. Arthur Ashe (Court) was the only one I didn’t have a chance to go on. Apart from that I trained on the Grandstand and Louis Armstrong. I remember running stairs on Louis Armstrong and getting cramps and all that stuff. It was just a great atmosphere. And that boosted my game a lot coming here and just the intensity of the training.”
Fresh off his stint in the Big Apple, Vaval came home and enrolled at Sir Arthur Lewis Community College’s Division of Technical Education and Management Studies where he studied Electronics Engineering for two years. Then his cousin Danny, also a tennis player, introduced him to someone who would impact greatly on his future; Sirsean Arlain, a former top ranked local player turned coach.
“When I met Sean he saw my potential and he kept on pushing me. First thing he used to say to me: ‘As much as you love tennis you need to make a cushion for yourself. You need to get involved in school, get your grades up.’ He started mentioning stuff like SAT’s because he had been there,” he said.
The coach was equally enamored with his new charge.
“The first thing I noticed about him was the fact that he was really hard working. He was a kid that just really wanted it. He wanted to play, he wanted to win, he wanted to get better, and he was willing to do whatever it took,” Arlain said of his student.
It was a match made in heaven as the two trained for hours on end, with Nessy aiming to have a better showing at local tournaments.
“My game wasn’t close to when I used to play those ITF (International Tennis Federation) junior tournaments. Mentally I wasn’t ready. Physically I would probably be able to hang with them and run but my game just wasn’t up to par compared to the other juniors so I never really had success early on in my career,” he admitted.
Also on the periphery of his mind was the encouragement of Arlain to use the sport as an avenue to education. After graduating from Sir Arthur, Vaval worked for two years as a security agent for American Airlines while continuing his hectic training regimen. He and Arlain worked on a recruitment video to support his applications to universities Vaval had singled out after thorough research. He quickly generated interest and after a barrage of emails back and forth, Vaval eventually settled on Asbury College, a Christian liberal arts institution located in Wilmore, Kentucky.
Entering in the frosty spring of 2013, the weather initially made it difficult for Vaval to adapt but he soon found his groove and assimilated into life as a student-athlete. Despite ending his season with all-conference honours, Vaval is back at work on the island with Arlain, training as vigorously as ever. The coach is quite pleased with his pupil’s development.
“I think his skill set transfers to the next level and by that I mean the pros. He’s got the power, he’s left handed and he can pretty much do whatever he wants with the ball. Just to see the improvements that are there now is amazing. He went over as a kid who was quite raw and he’d take swipes at just about anything. He’s a lot more refined now,” Arlain observed.
Vaval plans to play a few tournaments in St Lucia this summer. He is eyeing a couple of events at the University of Florida and University of Alabama as well. All this he hopes will propel him towards his goal of making it onto the professional circuit. But St Lucia is never far from his mind and he also seeks to serve as an ambassador for his homeland through his sport.
“For me it’s all about putting St Lucia on the map in a positive way and showing the youth coming up that there are avenues for them and options.”
He’s come a long way from the young man who went to his first match on a whim and he chuckled as he thought back to those days and what he considers to be a lucky break.
“My uncle bought two rackets (at that time) for my sisters, which I ended up using for a little bit. My sisters never played. It was just a coincidence that my uncle sent the rackets and then my two friends invited me to play.”
Coincidence? We think not.