For Vancouver’s Filip Peliwo, the road to the top of men’s tennis is bumpier than expected

MONTREAL – When you’re the International Tennis Federation’s junior champion, when you win two junior Grand Slam titles in a year and reach the final in the other two, it would be natural to assume the next steps up the professional ladder will follow, well, naturally.

And so, the difference between expectations and the brutally competitive reality of the ATP Tour has hit 20-year-old Filip Peliwo fairly hard.

But a ray of hope struck the Vancouver native, No. 265 in the ATP Tour’s latest singles rankings, in Casablanca on Monday when he qualified for the first Tour-level main draw of his young career.

Peliwo played the Rogers Cup last year in Montreal on a wild card. This one, he earned all on his own.

“It was a good match, I did what I had to do to win. Obviously the serving (42 per cent first serves) wasn’t as good as I would have liked it to be, but always room to improve tomorrow,” Peliwo told Eh Game via telephone from Casablanca after his 6-1, 6-4 victory over 31-year-old Romanian Victor Crivoi. “I think that this week might be the start of a bit of an upswing,” he added.

Peliwo will play 32-year-old Filippo Volandri of Italy, another hardened veteran, Monday.

The key match wasn’t on Monday, but in the second round of qualifying Sunday against unknown 22-year-old Spaniard Juan Lizariturry.

Peliwo was up 3-0 in the first set – but lost it 7-5. He was down 3-1 in the second set – and ran off five straight games. And he was down 0-3 in the third set – and won six of the next

seven games to take the match.

Peliwo’s road is similar to that of many young players – more on the men’s side than the women’s side. They have a great final year in the juniors playing boys their own age – and sometimes not even the best in their age group, who are already focused on pro events.

Then, suddenly, they’re out there in the trenches at low-level Futures events against 30-year-old guys who are fighting every week for a $1,000 cheque they need to make it to the next week on the circuit and, sometimes, even to support a family.

They’re so much more physically mature, and often so much hungrier. These foot soldiers of tennis aren’t supported by their national federations. They don’t have all the fresh tennis kits and all the racquets they need, a coach supplied and paid for, travel arrangements made – in other words, nothing to really worry about except going out and trying to win a tennis match.

It is literally men against boys. And the relatively undersized Peliwo – officially 5-foot-11 and 154 pounds – has been feeling it.

The addition this year of experienced Spanish coach Galo Blanco, who saw countryman Milos Raonic through this transition phase right to the top of the men’s game, can only help.

But it’s a trying adjustment period.

“He’s not trying to change my identity as a player. We’re just trying to improve my weaknesses and improve my strengths,” Peliwo said. “The main thing we’re working on is just being more tactical about the game, reading the game better, not just going out and hitting shot by shot.

“Just to be more mindful of how I’m playing. And planning out the match a lot better,” he added.

That’s a lot harder than it sounds. Basically it’s the difference between hitting a tennis ball

well and playing tennis well. These are not one and the same; the latter is a whole lot more difficult.

Plus, it’s a multi-step process.

First you talk about it. And you have to buy into it wholeheartedly, or you really have no shot.

Then you try to implement it in practice, which is difficult enough although because of Blanco, and training in Barcelona, Peliwo has access to some of the world’s best.

He has practiced with the likes of Pablo Andujar, Fabio Fognini, Albert Montañes and young Spanish up-and-comer Pablo Carreño Busta (a 22-year-old who cut a swath through the Futures circuit in 2013, also won four Challengers and is currently ranked No. 64).

Peliwo also has practiced with Andy Murray and several times with Rafael Nadal, most recently in Doha before his first tournament of the season.

“In practice it’s been going a lot better than in the matches. I’d go out and play well against all the top guys I’ve been training with, competing well with them in practice matches, and beating them sometimes. But once you get into the (tournament) matches you revert back into your old habits,” he said. “And you don’t have your coach constantly there reminding you of things.”

Trying to turn idea into execution with the nerves firing and the adrenaline flowing and those muscle memory instincts that took years to develop telling you to do something quite different – that’s where it gets tough.

“I was a bit impatient, and I thought I’d get up (the rankings) a bit faster. I’m thinking about all these tips and all the information I’ve been getting, which will improve my game a lot in the long run,” he said. “But it’s a bit difficult when you start because it’s all new to you. It’s a lot harder to execute everything. It just sometimes can be a mess if you have too much information at once and try to overdo everything.”

Peliwo said Blanco tells him that, stroke-wise, he hits the ball as well or better than most of the players out on Tour. It’s just a matter of putting it all together and using it the right way.

“I really think we can do great things together. I think the chemistry is good, but it’s going to be tough the first little while. The first part of my year hasn’t been really great. But I think these kind of changes, it takes you a while to get used to them and adapt, start getting comfortable enough to where it’s completely natural and everything’s a habit,” he said. “I think I’m starting to get to that point a little bit.”

One fact is indisputable: Blanco is only trying to get Peliwo to do what all the top players do. It’s a matter of accepting that step backward to eventually take those two (or more) steps forward later on – something you have to accept on faith will happen.

And you have to stay healthy.

Peliwo missed more than a month of tournament play earlier this year with a hip flexor problem. At first, he carried on. One day it would feel okay and he could practice full out; the next day, he’d have to back off because it hurt. On doctor’s advice, he took a full week off without doing anything at all. Then he began the process of getting back into peak match shape.

His return, during a tour of eastern Canada last month, had more downs than ups.

In his first match back at a Futures event in Gatineau, a former college player from Quebec who barely has an ATP Tour ranking upset Peliwo in the first round. At another Futures in Sherbooke, Peliwo toughed out three-setters against two lower-ranked players before rolling over former top-30 player Olivier Rochus of Belgium – then lost to a lower-ranked Bulgarian in the semifinals.

At the higher-level Challenger tournament in Rimouski, he again lost in the first round.

So this run in Morocco couldn’t have come at a better time – a sorely-needed confidence boost that, as Peliwo said, could mark the start of an upswing.

Volandri, his opponent Monday, is a tough customer on clay. Ranked in the top 25 back in 2007, the Italian still is a respectable No. 80 in the world.

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting