Ilya Ivashka vividly remembers his first martial arts class. His friend, Andrei Kozlovsky, gave him a stern warning.
“He said to me, ‘Dude, don’t go because they’re going to break your whole body,'” Ivashka recalled as a child. “I was so scared. I said, ‘Okay, I’m not going.’ I went to the first class, I was crying, they took me out and because of him I said I would never do it.
The next sport Ivashka tried was tennis, as her father always played with a friend. Fast forward two decades and Ivashka competes in the US Open, where he is in the fourth round for the first time.
In the stands throughout the tournament was Kozlovsky, who is now a professional dancer living in New York. It’s safe to say his advice to Ivashka worked. The 28-year-old is living his dream on one of sport’s biggest stages.
Ivashka’s 21-year-old brother, Aleksei, grew up playing many sports. “My brother has tried every sport that exists in the world,” Ivashka said. “At 10, he changed [to] 25 different sports. But for me, [it was] not like this.”
It was all tennis all the time for Ivashka. Before he was a teenager, he had already traveled outside of Belarus to compete. A memory goes back to the age of 12 years.
Ivashka remembers playing in a prestigious junior tournament in Bradenton, Florida. Andy Murray was training at the same facility, which at the time was on the verge of breaking into the Top 10 of Pepperstone’s ATP rankings.
“Seeing him play and just take a picture was the best moment of the trip,” Ivashka said, before reflecting on their first training together, which took place earlier this year in Rotterdam. “When I had the chance to train with him, it was a very beautiful moment. I found this photo on Facebook which I have. I don’t use Facebook, but I went there and I got this photo from I think 2006.
“He was super nice. He’s a very, very nice guy. Even when we practiced, I didn’t know him and probably he didn’t know me too… I talked to him and showed him the picture from when I was young and he was super, super nice to me. We talked and he’s a really nice guy.
“It was funny because he was watching [at the picture] like, ‘What’s going on with my hair? What’s going on in 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 got his first Pepperstone ATP ranking point at a tournament in Kazakhstan, which left him wanting more.
“I thought, ‘Okay, this is unreal. I’m done here.’ I was so happy with just one ATP point and then it came. I worked a lot, trained a lot and that was the result,” Ivashka said. “At first you think [that getting] a point is something incredible. So when you’re like [No.] 700, you think, ‘Ooh, I’m better than half the guys in my country, so maybe I can do a little more. So [No.] 300, maybe I can qualify for a Grand Slam, why not?
“I was erasing the limits that I had in my head and I was like, ‘Okay, it’s possible, I can do it and I’m playing well, so why not?’ Now it’s the same thing. [It is important] to unlock things in my head and keep believing that I can do it.
After making his first ATP Tour semi-final in 2018 in Munich, Ivashka thought he wasn’t too far from the pinnacle of the sport. Last year in Winston-Salem, he lifted his first ATP Tour trophy. Ivashka has lost just five games in total in his last two matches of the week, claiming the crown in emphatic fashion.
“It was something I dreamed about because I wanted to at least win an ATP title,” Ivashka said. “It was a huge thing for me.”
His effort that week in North Carolina showed the rest of the Tour that when he is at his best, Ivashka is as dangerous an opponent as anyone with his powerful base game. The only man to win a set against him that week was former world number 3 Marin Cilic.
“Ilya is a player with a very big heart, playing with heart and always fighting hard. You can see him in every game giving his best and pushing hard,” Cilic told ATPTour.com. “On the other side, he has this strong game, hitting big from the back of the court. Very solid.
“We have seen over the years so many Belarusians and Russians, guys hitting 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 battle.
Ivashka, who will face 11th seed Jannik Sinner for a place in his first Grand Slam quarter-final, is keeping his high expectations to himself. He prefers to show the world his best performances daily. When fit, few can beat the 28-year-old, who beat former world No. 11 Sam Querrey, eighth seed Hubert Hurkacz and 26th seed Lorenzo Musetti this year in Flushing Meadows.
“At the end everyone is trying to put their style of play on the court and trying to dominate. I feel comfortable in these type of matches, to play fast and have rallies, but to hit hard and try to play aggressively,” Ivashka said. “That’s the main objective, to try to [play] my game [so] it will hurt the opponent.
Ivashka wants to be the player who decides the game. So far, this strategy has worked well on the fast hard courts of New York.
“It’s amazing to be honest. I didn’t expect [it] come here. I haven’t had great results the last three weeks and I haven’t felt great, but I think the game was there and I was just trying my last effort in the United States. [this trip]“said Ivashka. “I’m really happy to go to week two.”