Ilya Ivashka vividly remembers his first martial arts lessons. His friend Andrei Kozlovsky warned him severely.
“He told me, ‘Man, don’t go there because they’re going to break your whole body,'” Ivashka recalled from his childhood. “I was so scared. I said, ‘Okay, I’m not going there.’ I went to first grade I cried they got me out and because of him I said I’ll never do it.
The next sport Ivashka tried was tennis, because his father always played with a friend. Fast forward two decades and Ivashka enters the competition US Openwhere he is in the fourth round for the first time.
On the stands throughout the tournament was Kozlovsky, who is now a professional dancer living in New York. It’s safe to say that his advice to Ivashka worked. The 28-year-old is living his dream on one of the biggest stages in sport.
Ivashka’s 21-year-old brother, Aleksei, grew up enjoying many sports. “My brother has tried every sport in the world,” Ivashka said. “He changed when he was 10 [to] 25 different sports. But for me, [it was] not like that.”
For Ivashka it was tennis all the time. Before he was a teenager, he had already traveled outside of Belarus to compete. One memory stands out when he was 12 years old.
Ivashka remembers a prestigious junior tournament in Bradenton, Florida. training at the same institution Andy Murraywho was about to crack the top 10 of the Pepperstone ATP rankings at the time.
“Seeing him play and just taking a picture was the best moment of the trip,” said Ivashka, before reflecting on their first training session together, which took place in Rotterdam earlier this year. “When I got the chance to train with him, it was a very nice moment. I found this photo on Facebook that I have. I don’t use Facebook but I was there and had this photo I think from 2006.
“He was super nice. He’s a very, very nice guy. Even when we were training I didn’t know him and he probably didn’t know me either… I spoke to him and I showed him the picture from when I was young and he was super, super nice to me. We chatted and he’s a really nice guy.
“It was funny because he was looking [at the picture] like, “What’s wrong with my hair? What’s happening on my head?’”
In his late teens, Ivashka’s parents wanted him to consider going to college in the United States. But at the age of 19, he secured his first Pepperstone ATP ranking point at a tournament in Kazakhstan, leaving him hungry for more.
“I was like, ‘Okay, it’s unreal. I’m done here.’ I was so happy with just one ATP point and then it came. I worked a lot, practiced a lot and this was the result,” said Ivashka. “First you think [that getting] A point is something amazing. Then if you like [No.] 700, you’re like, ‘Ooh, I’m better than half the guys in my country, so maybe I can do a little more. then [No.] 300 maybe i can play qualifiers of a grand slam why not?
“I erased the boundaries I had in my head and I saw, ‘Okay, it’s possible, I can do it and I’m playing well, so why not?’ Now it’s the same. [It is important] to unlock things in my head and keep believing that I can do it.’”
After reaching his first ATP Tour semi-final in Munich in 2018, Ivashka believed he wasn’t too far from the top of the sport. Last year he won his first ATP Tour trophy in Winston-Salem. Ivashka lost just five games total in his last two games of the week, capturing the crown in emphatic fashion.
“I dreamed of this because I wanted to win at least one ATP title,” said Ivashka. “It was a big thing for me”
His performance this week in North Carolina showed the rest of the tour that Ivashka, with his strong baseline game, is as dangerous an opponent as anyone when he’s at his best. The only man to earn a set against him this week was the former world No. 3 Marin Cilic.
“Ilya is a very big-hearted player who plays with heart and always fights hard. You can see him doing his best and pushing hard in every single match,” Cilic told ATPTour.com. “On the other hand, he has this strong game and hits big from the back of the court. Very solid.
“We’ve seen so many Belarusians and Russians over the years, the boys hit the ball big. He’s definitely one of them, great backhand, great solid play. To beat him you have to play really well and also be ready for a physical fight.”
Ivashka, who will play the 11th seed Jannik sinner for a place in his first Grand Slam quarterfinals, keeps his high expectations to himself. He prefers to show the world his best performance every day. When he’s on form there are few who can overpower the 28-year-old, who defeated the former world No. 11 Sam Querreyeighth seed Hubert Hurkacz and 26. seeds Lorenzo Musetti this year at Flushing Meadows.
“In the end everyone tries to bring their style of play onto the pitch and dominate. I’m comfortable in these types of games, playing fast and having rallies but hitting hard and trying to play aggressively,” Ivashka said. “That’s the main goal, to try [play] my game [so] that it harms the opponent.”
Ivashka wants to be the player who decides the game. So far, this strategy has worked well on the fast New York hard courts.
“It feels incredible to be honest. I did not expect [it] come here. I haven’t had very good results for the last three weeks and I haven’t been feeling that good, but I think the game was there and I was just trying my last try in the States [this trip]’ said Ivashka. “I’m really glad I’m going into the second week.”