Men's Tennis: Varga Reflects on Record, Passes Torch to Quigley

Feb. 16, 2012

LEXINGTON, Ky. – When those that follow the Kentucky men’s tennis program think about the team’s recent success, they will probably throw out names like Kauffmann, Witten, Agostinelli, Cox and Quigley, and rightfully so. Between those five stars of the program are 13 All-America honors, over 580 singles wins and seven finals appearances in a collegiate Grand Slam event.

But those that dive deeper into the rich history of Kentucky tennis will remember different names like van Emburgh, Benson, Bailey, Leytze and, of course, Paul Varga. All of these pillars of the program won their fair share of matches in the early tenure of legendary head coach Dennis Emery, but most notably they set a solid foundation for the future of the program.

Varga did both at an extremely high level. Known as the consummate professional on and off the court, Varga served as the team’s captain, holding his teammates accountable for the hard work and dedication it took to be successful. He backed that up on the court, winning an amazing 144 singles match during his four-year career.

“In those early days we were working so hard because we just didn’t have the credibility or reputation that the program does today,” Varga said in a phone interview last week. “I almost felt like the sacrifices we made in the first 10 years, traveling around and hitting the road and making sure that we were all doing the hard work on behalf of Kentucky tennis really set the tone. I’m sure almost any player that played during the early tenure of Dennis feels good about where the program is today. We were the early part of the building.”

Varga is being modest. The four-year letterwinner from 1982-85 was more than just a building block for the future. When Varga’s eligibility was finished after the 1985 season, he was the winningest singles player in school history. He held that title for over 27 years, until current UK senior Eric Quigley passed him on Jan. 24, 2012.

“I think that I knew after the fact more, a couple of years later someone told me,” Varga said about knowing if he was the school record holder when he graduated in 1985. “Back then, you were just playing tennis and moving along. I think the most staggering thing was the number of matches that we all played and that goes back to the hard work and dedication that we all had. A lot of us were playing in excess of 200 matches in a four-year career. That is a lot of matches, but it was worth it. We all had a blast doing it and we were successful, which was great. I didn’t walk away from the program at any point thinking I was the record holder, nor did I think it would stand of course.”

Varga said he didn’t even know Quigley was close to breaking his record until he read a story on about his younger brother Andrew Varga and how Quigley had passed him for third all-time. When he was notified via text message by Emery that Quigley had surpassed his record, Varga said it took him back to everything he and his teammates accomplished on and off the court.

“It is amazing as you move along, I don’t play tennis anymore and I am not very active in tennis other than through some of the players I stay in touch with from my era or seeing and talking to Dennis periodically,” Varga said. “I don’t think a lot about it. It is a very happy and proud part of my life and when I heard Eric broke the record I was happy for him and the program. It was just a reminder of what we were able to accomplish a quarter of a century ago and it felt pretty good to know that the foundation we set the program on was and still is on solid ground.”

With his tennis career over, Varga’s professional career bloomed. He currently is the Chairman and CEO of Brown-Forman, which is one of the largest American-owned spirits and wine companies in the world. Brown-Forman employs over 4,000 people worldwide with about 1,000 located in Louisville, Ky. Varga is in its 25th year with the company after starting his tenure with an internship in 1986 before eventually being named CEO in 2005 and Chairman in 2007.

“I have had one of the top posts with the company and have remained in those since 2003,” Varga said. “It feels like it happened yesterday, but it has been a decade. I have been in this business my whole life and it is just such a fun and super business to be around. I love the spirits and wine business and have had a chance to see the whole world and go different places. It has just been a wonderful career.”

Much of his professional success he attributes to the work ethic and professionalism that Emery instilled in his players. Varga said his great family upbringing and the things he learned from the game of tennis, like learning how to win and lose and work well with other people has led him to where he is today.

“There is no doubt that a lot of the experiences I had at UK, whether I knew it or not at the time, had a profound impact on what I am doing today,” Varga said. “My brothers and I were lucky enough to take on leadership roles within the Kentucky program while we were there and that helped. Tennis is an interesting sport because while you are growing up it is an individual sport and then you get to college and it adds a new dimension as a team sport. But the leadership and discipline that Dennis instilled in all of us and then the accountability that we all held each other too as well. A lot of those types of traits and qualities you can direct back to tennis.”

Varga said that he still keeps up with the Kentucky men’s tennis program through reading the local paper or going online to check scores. Varga said that Emery will sometimes text him what the team is doing or has accomplished, while he has also been involved in conversations about raising funds for a new indoor facility.

“I haven’t been able to attend a lot of matches or follow the program as closely as you might want to or if you had a child playing there,” Varga said. “But I am a supporter of the program and I am interested in their success. It is just great to see, not only what Eric is doing, but what the whole program has done. It makes me proud.”

Although he claims to not have many ties left in the game of tennis – his three children, all of which are under the age of nine, play club tennis in Louisville – Varga’s ties to UK tennis run deep. He and his teammates set an unshakeable foundation that today’s current stars are building on with trophies.