By David Thorpe
In the mid 1990s, a graduate of the University of Southern California's powerhouse tennis program spotted Francisco -- then just out of high school -- at a small tournament in South America. One connection led to another, and he jumped at a scholarship to play for a Southeastern Conference school. He didn't just want to get an education and play top-level tennis. He wanted to come out of the closet. 'I knew that I was gay and living in a country where that wouldn't be possible. It's dangerous. People get murdered for being gay.'
Little did Francisco know that playing serious college tennis in the Deep South wasn't exactly happy hour in the West Village. Homophobic slurs were commonplace on campus, among his tennis
teammates, and even on the green rectangle of the tennis court. 'People at other schools would say mean things, like 'You fucking faggot.' That's one of the first things they say to an opponent. People would come behind the court and try to bug you. With other players it was a racial slur or 'you fat ass.' They called me Barbie because I had long blond hair.'
The harassment didn't keep Francisco from becoming a star. With his aggressive baseline game, anchored by whizzing inside-out forehands and superaccurate passing shots, he finished twice in the nation's top five, earning him all-American status. He had wins over U.S. players who would later have respectable pro careers such as Robby Ginepri and Brian Vahaly, as well as competitive matches against James Blake and his brother Thomas. '[The homophobia] didn't hurt. I was trained to be mentally tough. I've been playing tennis my whole life. You have to be able to play competitively,' Francisco says. 'I was able to block it out, but I still heard it.'
He heard it well enough to know that coming out as one of the university's star athletes would be impossible. 'I wanted to be out, but I never acted on [my sexual feelings],' he says. 'I was too pressured. I concentrated on tennis and school.'
When Francisco moved to Atlanta and turned pro, little changed. He stayed in the closet. His career flourished. On the Challenger circuit -- the pro tour's minor leagues -- he reached eight finals and won two of them. He nabbed 10 doubles titles.
Successful enough to have a seat at pro tennis's movable feast, Francisco traveled the globe, occasionally hanging with superstars like Andy Roddick and Anna Kournikova. The highlight of Francisco's career was an upset win over Brazil in the Davis Cup, thanks in part to Francisco's fifth-set 11'9 victory on clay -- his worst surface -- over a player ranked 200 places higher. 'It was indescribable. He had the whole stadium behind him. Winning a match you're not supposed to win -- there's no feeling like it in the world,' he says.
Over the years, however, traveling and living solo took its toll. Francisco traveled to world capitals to play tennis but never visited gay bars. Coming out to his tennis buddies was unthinkable. 'If [an openly gay player] wanted to practice with other players, they would say, 'No thanks, I don't want to be associated with you,' because people would think they were gay also,' he says. One pro tennis insider isn't surprised by Francisco's assessment. 'The locker room can be a lonely place. For all the
camaraderie, it can be isolating,' he says. '[A gay player] is always going to be subject to snide comments. Naked bodies are
involved. You know, there are still people who think you can get AIDS off a toilet seat.'
Francisco says just being suspected of being gay means hearing homophobic comments on court. 'During the heat of battle -- as a last resort -- opponents, when they get irritated, go to that. They would call me 'faggot' or 'sissy.' ' How did they know he was gay? They didn't -- but he never had a girlfriend and never talked about girls. 'Tennis players like to have a girlfriend there all the time,' he says.
According to Francisco, being gay is also a potential competitive disadvantage. 'This is the talk in the locker room: If a male player has to play a guy who is [perceived to be] gay, they automatically
assume he is weak and they have a mental advantage. When they see who they are playing, they say, 'Oh, he's a sissy, you can't lose to him,' ' he says.
The idea riles Ljubicic. 'That's ridiculous. No pro needs extra motivation to win a match. If I play against black, white, Chinese, gay, I'm not looking for extra motivation,' he says.