Ilya Ivashka knew the moment he tried his first sport it was never going to last.
The Belarusian enjoyed a breakout season at 27 with a maiden tour-level title at Winston-Salem and a career-best FedEx ATP Ranking of No. 43. But his late-blooming tennis success may not have been possible had he taken his father’s advice.
“It is funny because my father wanted me to do martial arts,” Ivashka told ATPTour.com. “I started but I didn’t really like it because I was so scared I was going to break something, so I didn’t want to go and I didn’t like to fight.
“My dad was playing tennis with his friends and he was always taking me and I saw it and liked it, so I asked him if I could play tennis. Then my parents helped me and have been there all of my life to help me find coaches and put me in good tennis centres to improve and it went naturally.”
It soon became apparent Ivashka had the talent for his chosen discipline and he quickly excelled, after he started playing aged five. He was channelled into a more advanced group and from there, there was no turning back.
The Minsk native enjoyed his best season to date under Spanish coach and former player, Jose Checa-Calvo. In addition to his title run in Winston-Salem, which included wins over the likes of top seed Pablo Carreno Busta and former World No. 3 Marin Cilic, he reached the second week at a major for the first time with a fourth-round run at Wimbledon. His biggest win by FedEx ATP Ranking came as a qualifier in Munich in May, where he scored his first Top 10 victory over Alexander Zverev to reach the final.
“I have been quite consistent this year and coming through qualifying all the year I have been competing well and giving my best,” he said. “I was improving week by week and it didn’t matter if I won or lost. I was feeling very good in Winston-Salem.
“I think I have improved a little bit mentally, which helps me to be more consistent and fight for every match. It doesn’t matter about your ranking because at this level you can beat anybody or lose to anybody.”
He first teamed up with Checa-Calvo while training in Spain in 2018 after he decided to part ways with his former coach. The new partnership was one which Ivashka said quickly brought out the best in him as a player and as a person.
“I met Jose and we spoke for five minutes and I was like ‘wow’. So since then we are very good friends and he is like a step-brother to me,” Ivashka said. “He is always helping with all of the things off court and on court. He is a very big part of our success.
“He is a different character, but it is something I am learning from him. He is very calm. We are kind of similar because I spent a few years practising in Spain and the people there are more relaxed with everything.
“They take life very easily. In Belarus we have a little bit of a different mentality, so going to Spain was good for me. When we are back in Barcelona he has his life and I have my own. He has his kid, who is nine months and I have my wife.”
Ivashka, who went 31-16 in 2021, is a self-confessed home body who favours a night in watching TV with his wife or reading J.K. Rowling books over a night out on the town. After four to five weeks on the road he admitted he tired of travel and enjoyed being home. However, there was one place he didn’t mind being away for work in 2021 on the ATP Tour.
“One of my favourite tournaments is St. Petersburg,” Ivashka said. “It is one of my favourite cities in the world because everywhere you go, it is like a museum. It is amazing.”