Strings Attached

By Gianluca Agostinelli

Spring 2020

A tribute to Canadian tennis star Bruno Agostinelli from his brother.

Iam older than my older brother.

It is a thought that I never imagined would cross my mind. However, on February 27th, 2020, I turned 29 years old. I was hesitant to celebrate or even acknowledge my birthday because I felt overwhelming guilt and remorse. How could I revel in such a festive occasion with the constant, painful reminder that my only sibling, Bruno Agostinelli Jr., had his life cut short at just 28?

Four years after Bruno's untimely death, I try to remind myself that Bruno would want me to be happy but attempts at consolation remain futile. I know that, physically, he is no longer with us, but my mind still tricks me into believing that his passing was just a nightmare and that, one day, he'll show up unannounced to steal a slim-fit shirt from my closet. I am not sure if mourning will get any easier, but I know, with certainty, that I miss him. On the days that I feel most empty and helpless — when even thinking about Bruno is a paralyzing struggle — I stay devoted to navigating a new, difficult chapter of my life that revives a faded passion to bring me closer to my brother.

On the evening of March 9th, 2016, Bruno, then a National Junior Coach for Tennis Canada, died in a motorcycle accident in Toronto while on his way home from work. I imagine that he was in a rush to see his newborn son, Alessio, whom Bruno welcomed just 11 days prior to his passing.

After concluding his senior year at the University of Kentucky, Bruno Agostinelli Jr. competed in the 2009 Rogers Cup Masters in Montreal, Quebec. In the first round, he faced rival and fellow Canadian, Peter Polansky (2009).

Bruno's tragic death, covered extensively in the media, brought to light so many of his countless athletic achievements, each of which were often muted by my brother's humility. Following an illustrious junior career that saw him win provincial, national, and international championships, Bruno signed a full scholarship with the University of Kentucky, where he would later captain the men's tennis team, reach a ranking of #2 in the NCAA singles standings and be awarded the prestigious title of Male Athlete of the Year. An NCAA All-American, Bruno also represented Canada twice at the Davis Cup, once securing a victory against Peru in the decisive fifth rubber to secure Canada's standing in the top tier. After competing in the 2009 Rogers Cup in Montreal, Bruno stepped away from professional tennis to focus on junior player development. He went on to coach some of the world's greatest talent, including Felix Auger-Aliassime, Bianca Andreescu, and Denis Shapovolav, the latter of whom has dedicated many victories and efforts to Bruno.

In the fall of 2015, I had submitted a nomination for Bruno to be inducted into the Niagara Falls Sports Wall of Fame. After a unanimous decision, he was inducted just a month before his death. I did not realize then that, in composing Bruno's biography, I had written his unofficial eulogy too. Stricken by unimaginable grief in the weeks following Bruno's passing, I committed myself to honouring his life in as many ways as possible, to ensure that he would always be remembered for having touched so many lives as a player, coach, and teammate. However, despite numerous commemorative efforts, including creating a memorial tournament and dedicating a local tennis court to Bruno's legacy, I lamented that I was not doing enough to pay homage to my late sibling.

I stopped sleeping. I felt indescribable sadness and despair. I wanted, so much, to show Bruno that I loved and missed him. For days on end, I felt like I was having an out-of-body experience, watching a lesser version of myself trying to endure life. While reading hundreds of moving cards and condolences, I thought about Bruno's funeral, most of which is, intentionally, a distant blur. However, I do recall that, at the visitation, my friend had presented me with a tennis racquet that Bruno had gifted him many years ago. One evening, while spinning that old racquet in my hand and reflecting on how tennis had influenced my family, I conjured up memories of Bruno and I on court together. Smiling at my own short-lived tennis career, I realized that in order to come to grips with my hardship and to reunite with my brother, I would have to start where it had all begun; at love.

Left: Bruno Agostinelli Jr. (14) and brother, Gianluca Agostinelli (10) at the Welland Tennis Club after having won an OTA tournament as doubles partners (2000). Right: Bruno (8) at the Club at White Oaks in Niagara-on-the-Lake, where he would train daily with his father and coach, Bruno Agostinelli Sr. The club now hosts an annual ITF Junior Championship in Bruno's memory (1995).

Like Bruno, I grew up playing tennis. My racquet may have been bigger than me but by the age of four I was running around on court pretending to be able to chase down my brother's serve. I am sometimes comforted by the once familiar sounds of my father, named Tennis Canada's 2001 Coach of the Year, coming home after his midnight shift and waking up Bruno and I for practice - at 5:30 AM! Admittedly, my aversion to early mornings meant that my dad and brother were the only two on court most days. As I grew older and began to develop my own game, I shadowed my brother and acted as his practice partner, often drilling heavy groundstrokes at Bruno, who was standing at the net to work on his volleys. Influenced by Bruno's success — and an amicable sibling rivalry — I began playing in tournaments. At just 9 years-old, I was a member of Team Ontario, training alongside future stars including Milos Raonic, whom I would later defeat at the U-12 provincials.

Our dusty gold trophies now serve as bittersweet reminders of the fun that we had playing the sport which we had both come to love.

As the younger brother I wanted to follow in Bruno's footsteps. Though four years my elder, and far superior in skill, Bruno was kind and humble enough to share the court with me as his doubles partner. Wearing his oversized, hand-me-down outfits and wielding his old racquet, I tried to miss as few shots as possible. Our dusty gold trophies now serve as bittersweet reminders of the fun that we had playing the sport which we had both come to love. When not on the court, Bruno and I were busy playing All Star Tennis '99 on our Nintendo 64, and lining the walls of our bedroom with magazine spreads of Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras, Richard Krajicek, Mark Philippoussis, and Yevgeny Kafelnikov. Daniel Nestor once said that Bruno had the best one-handed backhand in Canadian tennis. I cannot take all the credit for it, but I'd like to think that playing out imaginary points on our beds while we were supposed to be sleeping may have had something to do with it.

Even as a junior, Bruno's work ethic was exemplary. His Tennis Canada teammates dubbed him the "focus man" because of its unrelenting concentration — a trait that would later characterize his performance at the University of Kentucky. Though a gifted player, Bruno was incredibly modest. In fact, Bruno's proudest tennis feat, he claimed, was reaching the world ranking of #1 in Topspin, a videogame that filled Bruno's downtime. As Bruno began travelling more frequently around the world with Team Canada, I started seeing less of him. I turned to tennis as a means of filling that void and to strengthen our brotherhood, even from across the globe. I soon learned however, that, though talented, I was not — and could never be — Bruno. I lacked the fundamental motivation to be disciplined and devoted to the sport. In truth, I wanted to win matches without the practices, sacrifices, and responsibilities. I wanted to compete at an elite level, but with no strings attached.

While Bruno's medals and cups began requiring a trophy case all their own, I started to care less about the sport and, eventually, stopped taking tennis seriously. In high school, I medalled at the OFSAA championships each year, but I had fallen out of love with the sport. With Bruno already away at university — setting records for Kentucky — I found little reason to keep up with my own game. People often asked me why I decided to abandon tennis despite a lot of promise. I brushed off their questions with jokes about peaking too early or being a "has-been" but, honestly, I knew that I would not be strong enough. I witnessed the mental and physical anguish that Bruno, like any elite athlete, endured to achieve greatness. Defeated by the unlikelihood of becoming a professional tennis player, I threw in the towel. I gave up and chose to pursue my other interests.

I often tell my students that every choice, whether positive or negative, informs one's narrative. I am both grateful for and proud of my professional and personal successes but, hypocritically, I do live with the regret of not pursuing tennis — even if only for a little longer. One of my favourite memories is watching Bruno play on Center Court at the Rogers Cup in Montreal. Spectators saw two young Canadians compete toe-to-toe in an exciting, first-round match. What I saw was vindication for Bruno: a celebration of him finally having achieved his lifelong goal of competing at the professional level. I frequently completed Bruno's homework and composed his speeches, but this was a triumph — a profound and meaningful realization — all his own. Always attributing his success to our dad, Bruno reached new heights that I could only dream of. As a brother, I could not have been happier for him. As a tennis player, however, I questioned what could have been.


Left: In his senior year, Bruno Agostinelli Jr., Captain of the University of Kentucky men's tennis team, won 37 matches and reached an NCAA ranking of #2 in singles (2009). Right: Bruno was named the University of Kentucky's Male Athlete of the Year. He was also named "Mr. Wildcat" at the 2009 CATSPY Awards. The Mr. Wildcat award (now named in Bruno's memory) is given for all-around excellence in athletics, academics, character, and service, and is the highest honor given by the athletic department to a student-athlete (2009).

“Sitting in my living room, growing sick of the familiar fragrance of funeral flowers, I continued to spin Bruno's old racquet — every rotation like a new View-Master ¬shutter into our storied past.

Feeling the weight of Bruno's racquet, and the heaviness of the childhood recollections it evoked, I realized that, for me, there was no Bruno without tennis. I knew that, to reconnect with him, to truly show how much Bruno meant to me, I would need to return to the estranged sport that had brought us together and cemented our brotherhood. Inspired by Bruno's athletic and professional successes, I decided to start a new, complicated journey that saw me return to the very courts on which my brother and I practiced as kids. Searching for and wanting to recover the part of me that I lost on the night of March 9th, I made a phone call that would change my outlook and purpose.

Scott Hurtubise was just as surprised by the call as I was. Then the coach of the Brock University varsity tennis teams, Scott knew my brother and immediately understood why I asked if I could try out for the squad. I was pleasantly taken aback when, at the first practice, many players came up to me, introduced themselves, and shook my hand. It took me a few days to discover that they thought I was the team's coach! Already in my mid-20s with an unforgiving receding hairline, I tried my best to blend in with the freshmen; the recent high school graduates — some of whom I had coached as a teacher! Returning to such a physical sport was as painful as it was exhausting, especially as a Ph.D. student working part-time as a college professor and university instructor. Admittedly, I often questioned what I was doing and who I was pretending to be. In those times of doubt, however, I looked up to Bruno for his guidance, and to my teammates for validation.

I found a reel of Bruno's old strings in the basement and, despite their age, I asked Scott if he could weave them into my racquet. He smiled and, with a nod said, "I get it."

Prior to competing in my very first match against McMaster University, I found a reel of Bruno's old strings in the basement and, despite their age, I asked Scott if he could weave them into my racquet. He smiled and, with a nod said, "I get it." With strings attached, I was no longer playing to prove my prowess but rather, to show my love for the sport and for my brother. Four years since my victorious — albeit rusty — debut with Brock University I cannot imagine my life without tennis. With newfound perspective I have the great fortune of being able to compete in tournaments, leagues, socials, and even university championships. I am certain that I would no longer be able to take down Milos but what I have lost in skill, I have regained tenfold in passion.

For me, tennis has now become a lifelong sport. Thanks to Giovanni Rodriguez, a poster of Bruno hangs above the tennis courts at the Club at White Oaks; a reminder that Bruno is watching over me — and likely laughing at my shaky, questionable attempts to mirror his one-handed backhand.

Rejoining the tennis world has been as rewarding as it has been emotional. Several times I have been approached by players, coaches, administrators and photographers, all of whom assure me how wonderful and inspirational my brother was. Hearing their stories about Bruno is cathartic; it warms my heart to know that his words and actions continue to positively impact the lives of so many people around the world. I was born with only one biological brother but over the past four years, I have had the distinct privilege of forming new bonds with teammates whom I am proud to call my family. On the bad days I lean on them for support. Just being on the tennis court is a form of closure; a therapeutic release that lets me momentarily escape my sorrow. My brothers have carried me on and off the tennis court — too often quite literally. As my studies and varsity tennis career have now come to an end, I am forever thankful for their compassion and love.

Bruno Agostinelli Jr. was a member of Canada's Davis Cup team. In 2009, he defeated Ivan Miranda in four sets in a deciding rubber match to clinch a 3-2 victory for Canada over host Peru at the Club Lawn Tennis De La Exposicion in Lima (2009).

Grief of course, never disappears. But we learn how to play with — and through — its anguish. We all mourn and remember Bruno differently. I do not sense Bruno's spirit within the walls of his mausoleum crypt but I do feel it between the lines of a tennis court, back to which Bruno has called me. Death is not an endpoint but rather, a beginning; an opportunity to reflect profoundly on the meaning of life and to truly value the events and virtues that define one's life. As a child I admired Bruno's international acclaim, which still resonates today. I just wish that I would have told him how amazing he was. He was a better brother to me than I could have ever been to him but I hope from the bottom of my heart that he knows how much I miss his voice and presence. Whether rallying recreationally at a local park or competing in an OTA, Tennis Canada, or USTA event, each time I strike a ball marks a celebration of Bruno's extraordinary life and legacy.

My partner told me that on the night of Bruno's death I was talking in my sleep with my brother. She said that I had a full conversation with him in Italian. I still wonder what we were speaking about. Maybe we were saying our goodbyes — or making fun of one another as we had done just hours before Bruno's accident. Losing a loved one is never easy. I am comforted though, by the fact that Bruno still visits me in my dreams to let me know that he is never too far away. Life is not measured by the years that one lives but rather, by how one chooses to live those years. My brother achieved so much with the little time that he was granted on earth. His accolades are many and his personality unforgettable. I know that when my own time comes, Bruno will have a tennis racquet waiting for me. In the meantime, I can only hope that I can dedicate the rest of my life to making Bruno proud of his older, always little brother; both off and on the tennis court.

Gianluca Agostinelli is a Professor of Communications at Niagara College, an Occasional Teacher with the Niagara Catholic District School Board, and an Education Instructor and Practicum Advisor at Brock University, where he is completing a Ph.D. in Educational Studies.