Canada’s Filip Peliwo driven to dominate the court
Small by today’s standards, the North Shore kid who hates to lose will need to draw on passion as pro
Vancouver’s Filip Peliwo, Wimbledon and U.S. Open junior champion, was named junior player of the year by the International Tennis Federation.
Photograph by: Paul Chiasson, THE CANADIAN PRESS
VANCOUVER — In 2010, Kendrys Morales, then with the Angels, provided a cautionary tale in excessive celebration when, after leaping onto a crowded home plate following a walk-off, game-winning home run against the Mariners, he fractured his ankle. While Morales lay collapsed and grimacing, his teammates cavorted around him in celebration, oblivious to his pain.
The next day, Angels management put the kibosh on excessive revelry in the belief that the end of a game can be more injurious to the health of a ballplayer than actually playing it.
Likewise, Canadian tennis player Filip Peliwo is still in the process of recovering from the backlash of his country’s finest moment on the international tennis stage earlier this month in Vancouver. Peliwo, a 19-year-old prodigy who was added to Team Canada as a practice-hitting partner for Milos Raonic and Frank Dancevic, suffered a sprained ankle in the delirium of Canada’s historic 3-2 win over top-ranked Spain in their Davis Cup World Group tie three weeks ago.
Caught up in the euphoria at the UBC Thunderbird Sports Centre, a converted hockey rink, Peliwo leaped over the boards following a mob scene at centre court, after Raonic clinched the tie with a straight-sets win over Spain’s Guillermo Garcia-Lopez. He landed awkwardly on a chair, tumbled to the floor and later left the building on crutches.
“It was a silly way to get injured,” suggested Peliwo’s father, Mark, a massage therapist in Vancouver. “Filip had no problem pushing Milos and Frank to the limit all week (in practice). Then this. But he wanted to win so badly, and he was so excited, that common sense took a back seat.”
While the ankle injury is not described as serious, weeks have gone by and Peliwo is not 100 per cent ready to compete again. He was forced to withdraw from a $15,000 ITF Futures event this weekend in Brownsville, Tex., at the start of what the Canadian tennis community hopes and believes will be a defining season in his first full year as a pro.
Last year, when he was 18, Peliwo came on like Kid Dynamite. He reached the junior finals of all four Grand Slams, winning at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in Flushing Meadows, N.Y. There never had been a Canadian tennis player that good that young. By comparison, Raonic, now 22, reached a combined ranking (singles and doubles) of No. 35 in the world in his last year of junior, 2008.
Everyone would like to believe that Peliwo’s past is prologue for a great future, a consensus pick for a player who can make the same stunning immediacy as pro that Raonic already has.
But opinion is divided on what Peliwo eventually can accomplish in a sport maddeningly difficult to predict.
For every Milos Raonic who blossomed into a better pro than a junior, there are scores of Donald Youngs and Philip Besters, blue-chip prospects who’ve fallen by the wayside. Young, an American, has been in a deep personal and career malaise after being identified as a phenom nine years ago in a Newsweek magazine feature Who’s Next?
At age 15, he became the youngest-ever to win the Australian Open junior title. In 2005, Young was the youngest again (at 16 years, five months) to be ranked the No. 1 junior in the world.
Yet, today, at 23, he operates from the outer edges of relevance with just a 37-85 record lifetime in ATP (Association of Tennis Professionals) matches.
Bester, like Peliwo, is not only from the same Polish-Canadian background, his tennis talent was first observed on Vancouver’s North Shore.
Bester was showcased at Hollyburn Country Club in West Vancouver; Peliwo’s climb up the tennis ladder began at the North Shore Winter Club, next door in North Vancouver.
In 2006, Bester became the first Canadian to reach a Grand Slam final when he lost the junior French Open to Slovakia’s Martin Klizan.
Klizan is No. 23 in the current ATP rankings; the oft-injured Bester sits at No. 558, playing in lower-tier cash tournaments in the Cayman and Virgin Islands, scuffling for a winner’s cheque of $2,000 so he can keep the dream of a pro career alive.
“It’s different for everybody,” said Bester, who was B.C.’s junior athlete of the year in 2005. “Just because you’re a great junior doesn’t mean you’re going to make it on the professional tour. Many junior Grand Slam winners, you don’t hear about them today. In my case, when I reached the finals of the junior French Open, expectations went up. There are a lot of things to figure out when you become a pro. The biggest thing, for me, was to get much stronger to compete at that level. I’m not saying that Filip won’t be a success. Obviously, he’s doing something right. To get to four Grand Slam finals means he knows how to win. Hopefully, he can carry that over to the professional ranks.”
Watching the 6-foot-5 Raonic wind up and blow a 230 km/h rocket serve past a frozen opponent is to know that the tennis gods not only have blessed him with stupendous physical tools but also slipped him with answers to figure out the geometry of the game. And size in tennis, as with sports in general, has come to matter more and more.
In last week’s ATP Tour event in San Jose, Raonic was just one redwood in the Land of the Giants. The field included 6-foot-9 John Isner, 6-foot-6 Sam Querrey and 6-foot-10 Ivo Karlovic, who could all have been mistaken for NBA power forwards, if not for the fact they were holding tennis rackets.
It’s not an easy time for anyone who is 5-foot-11 and 140 pounds, as Peliwo was at the time of his U.S. Open victory last September.
“Last year, I was about 138-140,” Peliwo explained. “This year, I’m about 155. I’ve put in a lot of time in the gym to do weighs and stuff. I think that’s starting to pay off a bit.”
Growth strikes teenage men dramatically and unevenly, and there’s no telling if Peliwo will grow into the physical capabilities of coping with the realities of higher competition.
There is no question that hardcore surfaces are tougher on the body — the knees and back — even for 6-foot-1 Rafael Nadal than they might be for a harder-serving bigger man. The ferociousness of his game and technique has helped Nadal rack up Grand Slam titles and injuries in ways that are both mesmerizing and distressing.
“It’s become a big man’s sport, absolutely,” said Bob Exell, a teaching pro at the North Shore Winter Club who used to trade strokes with Peliwo. “You have to be big these days, because the guys are hitting the ball so hard. You can’t say that Filip will have the same serve as Raonic. It’s not possible. And it’s harder for the smaller guy who has to run around the court more to get his point. Longer rallies result in more injuries.”
That said, Exell believes Peliwo has the royal jelly when it comes to competitiveness.
He is racket-hurling hard on himself, and simply hates to lose. Nimble and tricky, he plays fast. And his court demeanour is to treat every point as if it were his last of the match, or if it was the last of his life.
Plus, he’s a sponge who soaks up every dollop of advice and shred of experience.
When Peliwo was 15, Exell said he could beat him “60 to 70 per cent” of the time.
By the time Peliwo was 16, Exell’s success rate was down to “five per cent.”
“He’s pretty driven, really focused on tennis, since he was eight or nine years old,” Exell said. “You could see on TV, after he lost the (junior) French Open. He wasn’t smiling. He was frowning. He doesn’t like losing. He doesn’t always mind his Ps and Qs.”
That intensity, said Peliwo’s agent, Stuart Duguid of Lagardere Unlimited, is his most defining characteristic.
“He has that look in his eye that’s hard to describe, until you see it,” Duguid said. “He’s one of the nicest, well-mannered, likable kids I’ve worked with. Then something clicks and changes when he’s on the tennis court. He’s a born winner who will do whatever it takes.”
“He’s really up there in my books,” added Grant Connell, another North Shore Winter Club product who won 22 ATP doubles titles and achieved a 23-9 record (singles and doubles) in Davis Cup. “What he’s achieved at the junior level is sensational. I don’t believe he’ll be a one-hit wonder.”
There has been a lot more tennis than academics in Peliwo’s formative years as evidenced by his lack of scholastic achievement. He completed Grade 8 at Sentinel high school in West Vancouver in what was his last year of conventional schooling.
Peliwo turned 19 on Jan. 30 but he has yet to complete his credits for Grade 10 graduation through correspondence with the Vancouver Learning Network. The National Tennis Centre in Montreal, where he is based, provides a study hall and tutor to monitor academic progress in a specific period set aside during the training day.
“We have a commitment to keep our athletes in the same school year as their peers,” said NTC educational consultant Andre Barette. “Because of Filip’s competitive schedule, he definitely fell behind. That is unusual. Nine times out of 10 the NTC hits the target. Milos graduated well on time and he’s gone on to take a few online university courses. Filip has said that a high school degree is somewhere down the line for him. Tennis is the No. 1 priority right now. He’s more driven than most. He’s relentless. You see that personality on the court, and you see it in everyday life. He’s set a goal for himself, and he intends to get it. That attitude, quite possibly, will make him a champion.”
Despite his single-mindedness of purpose, Peliwo seems to know that tennis is a game of unpredictable bounces. He’ll have to traverse a wide range of territory in minor league tournaments, dealing with physical, psychological and lifestyle adversity, against older, stronger and more experienced pros who will amped at the prospect of knocking off a two-time junior Grand Slam champion.
Today, he sits No. 519 in the ATP rankings.
Since turning pro last September, Peliwo’s career winnings have amounted to $12,883. So far, in the 2013 calendar year, he has banked $463.
Wimbledon, where 7,000 people watched him win at centre court, seems a long way from Brownsville or Harlingen, Tex., Gatineau or Sherbrooke, Que., some of the future stops on the ITF Futures circuit which is to the ATP Tour like the East Coast Hockey League is the to the NHL.
“Last year was an amazing experience,” Peliwo said. “I know it was a great accomplishment. At the same time, it was junior tennis. It is time ... not to forget about it, but to put it behind me and start focusing on being a good pro. If I dwell on it too much, I’m stuck in the past. I want to achieve my goal of being a top pro, rather than a top junior. This is something I’ve wanted since I was a really young kid. I’m doing what I love to do. That’s what’s so great about it. The money is secondary.”
Martin Laurendeau, the Canadian team captain, wants him around again at the next round of the Davis Cup, April 5-7 at UBC, where Canada will take on Italy in the quarter-finals.
“Our practice parters — Filip, Jesse Levine, Adil Shamasdin — they must take a lot of credit for our success against Spain,” Laurendeau said. “We asked players like Filip to leave their identity behind, assume the playing style of a Spanish player, and prepare our guys as best they can. They unselfishly gave of themselves. Filip hits the ball like a pro, and it’s important for Tennis Canada to have him become part of the process. He soaked up the experience. The hope is that one day he’ll get his shot.”
Peliwo is living his boyhood dream while barely removed from boyhood, hurling himself at a goal furiously enough that he might get there after all. But, at this point, who’s to say where he’ll eventually land?
We suspect this much is certain: He’ll pick his landing spot more carefully at his next on-court celebration.
© Copyright (c) The Vancouver Sun