Ilya Ivashka remembers his first martial arts class vividly. His friend, Andrei Kozlovsky, gave him a stern warning.
“He told me, ‘Man, don’t go there because they are going to break all your body’,” Ivashka recalled from when he was a child. “I was so scared. I said, ‘Okay, I’m not going there.’ I went to the first class. I was crying, they took me out and because of him I said I will never do it.”
The next sport Ivashka tried was tennis, because his father always played with a friend. Fast-forward two decades and Ivashka is competing in the US Open, where he is into the fourth round for the first time.
In the stands throughout the tournament has been Kozlovsky, who now is a professional dancer living in New York. It is safe to say his advice to Ivashka worked out. The 28-year-old is living his dream on one of the biggest stages in sports.
Ivashka’s 21-year-old brother, Aleksei, grew up playing many sports. “My brother tried all sports that exist in the world,” Ivashka said. “By 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 teen, he had already travelled outside Belarus to compete. One memory sticks out from when he was 12 years old.
Ivashka remembers playing a prestigious junior tournament in Bradenton, Florida. Training at the same facility was Andy Murray, who at the time was on the verge of cracking the Top 10 of the Pepperstone ATP Rankings.
“To see him playing and just to get a photo was the best moment of the trip,” Ivashka said, before reflecting on their first practice together, which came earlier this year in Rotterdam. “When I got the chance to practise with him, it was a very nice moment. I found this photo on Facebook that I have. I don’t use the Facebook, but I went there and I had this photo from I think 2006.
“He was super nice. He’s a very, very nice guy. Even when we were practising, I didn’t know him and probably he didn’t know me as well… I talked with him and I showed him the picture from when I was young and he was super, super nice to me. We spoke and he’s a really nice guy.
“It was funny because he was looking [at the picture] like, ‘What’s happening 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, which left him hungry for more.
“I was thinking, ‘Okay, it’s unreal. I’m done here.’ I was so happy with just one ATP point and then it was coming. I was working a lot, practising a lot and that was the result,” Ivashka said. “At first you’re thinking [that getting] one point is something amazing. Then when you’re like [No.] 700, you think, ‘Ooh, I am better than half of the guys that are from my country, so maybe I can do a little bit more. Then [No.] 300, maybe I can play qualies of a Grand Slam, why not?’
“I was deleting the limits that I had in my head and I was seeing, ‘Okay, it’s possible, I can do it and I am playing good, so why not?’ Now it’s the same thing. [It is important] to unlock the things in the head and keep believing that I can do it.’”
After making his maiden ATP Tour semi-final in 2018 in Munich, Ivashka believed he was not too far from the top of the sport. Last year in Winston-Salem, he lifted his first ATP Tour trophy. Ivashka lost just five total games in his final two matches of the week, capturing the crown in emphatic fashion.
“It was something that I was dreaming of because I wanted at least to win one 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 baseline game. The only man that earned a set against him that week was former World No. 3 Marin Cilic.
“Ilya is a very big-hearted player, playing with heart and always fighting strong. You can see him every single match giving his best and pushing strong,” Cilic told ATPTour.com. “On the other side, he’s having that strong game, hitting big from the back of the court. Very solid.
“We’ve seen through the years so many Belarusians and Russians, the guys smacking the ball big. He’s definitely one of them, great backhand, great solid game. In order to beat him, you really have to play well and also be ready for a physical battle as well.”
Ivashka, who will play 11th seed Jannik Sinner for a place in his first Grand Slam quarter-final, keeps his big-picture expectations to himself. He prefers to show the world his best performance daily. When in form, there are few who can overpower the 28-year-old, who has defeated former World No. 11 Sam Querrey, eighth seed Hubert Hurkacz and 26th seed Lorenzo Musetti this year at Flushing Meadows.
“At the end, everybody tries to put his game style on the court and try to dominate. I feel comfortable in these types of games, to play fast and to have the rallies, but to hit hard and to try to play aggressive,” Ivashka said. “That is the main goal, to try to [play] my game [so] that it will hurt the opponent.”
Ivashka wants to be the player who decides the match. So far, that strategy has worked out well on the quick New York hard courts.
“It feels incredible to be honest. I didn’t expect [it] coming here. I didn’t have very good results the past three weeks and I was not feeling so good, but I think the game was there and I was just trying my last effort in the States [this trip],” Ivashka said. “I’m really happy I’m going to the second week.”