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Filip Peliwo returns a shot against Lukas Lacko during a match in the Citi Open in Washington on Monday. Peliwo won the Wimbledon boys’ tourney in 2013 (Nick Wass/AP)
Filip Peliwo returns a shot against Lukas Lacko during a match in the Citi Open in Washington on Monday. Peliwo won the Wimbledon boys’ tourney in 2013 (Nick Wass/AP)

On the road with Canada’s next hope for tennis superstardom Add to ...

Tuesday morning, 14 hours after he lost in the first round of the Citi Open here, Filip Peliwo is back on the court, a practice session. It’s 10:30 a.m., and well before the day’s matches begin, the grounds of the Rock Creek Park Tennis Center are quiet, save for the buzz of an air-conditioning unit, the grunt of a sewage truck, and the staccato pop-pop-pop of tennis balls bouncing off synthetic strings.

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Peliwo is 20, and two years ago he was boys’ champion at Wimbledon, a first for a Canadian male, a winner alongside compatriot Eugenie Bouchard, the girls’ champion, her win a Grand Slam first of any kind for a Canadian. Bouchard’s professional career, however, was already under way, in the first stage of an incredible ascent that earlier this month landed her in the senior Wimbledon final, another Canadian first for a young woman who is on the verge of international tennis superstardom.

Peliwo’s road is more difficult, more typical of the harsh grind for men barely out of their teens.

He turned pro in early 2013, and he’s playing mostly lesser-tour events with slim purses. As well, the bulk of the top 100 male players the world are in their later 20s, in their athletic prime, battle-tested for years. In this milieu, Peliwo is an infant, and fairly slight – 5-foot-11 and 155 pounds. For the booming baseline game that is men’s tennis these days, countryman Milos Raonic – 6-foot-5, 220 pounds, a cannon serve – is the prime physical prototype.

“You knew Peliwo wasn’t just going to climb up the rankings like Milos because he doesn’t have the same firepower,” said Daniel Nestor, one of Canada’s tennis greats. “But saying that, I think he has a very good head on his shoulders. I think he will be a top-50 player. He hits the ball big for someone his size. You don’t see a lot of guys his size hitting the ball as big as he does.”

On Monday night, on a side court, the No. 270-ranked Peliwo faced No. 91 Lukas Lacko, a 26-year-old from Slovakia who reached No. 44 last year. This was one of the biggest matches of Peliwo’s early career, a wild-card place in the field secured by his agency, Lagardere, the organizer of the Citi Open. But Peliwo didn’t look out of place on the court. In Morocco in April, he defeated the No. 80-ranked player in the world and almost overcame the No. 43 player before losing in three sets.

In his first-round match in Washington, there were glimpses of what could be – a cracking serve and resilience. But there were mistakes too. Struggles with his service tosses, wired on adrenalin, exacerbated by gusty wind. And any observer could easily tell who was the seasoned pro and who was the younger man. Peliwo nearly pushed the first set to a tiebreak, and then in the second set, down three games to love, he scrapped back to tie 3-3 before Lacko finished an evening’s work – 7-5, 6-3.

As a boy growing up in North Vancouver, Peliwo announced to his parents he aimed to become the No. 1 player in the world. They laughed, silly talk of a child. He meant it. Today, he knows No. 1 is a rarely reached pinnacle, but the top 50, he believes, is “very achievable.”

“I feel even more confident as the years pass,” said Peliwo on Tuesday morning after practice, wearing a tennis-ball green Lacoste polo, a sponsorship garnered from his junior success. “You have to have that unwavering belief. That’s what pushes you when everything looks pretty bleak.”

It is the precise counsel Raonic – 23 and now No. 7 in the world – provides. “Have patience,” said Raonic. “It’s not always going to pay off right away. Don’t ever doubt – 100-per-cent conviction.”

Now it is onward to Toronto, where Peliwo is set to fight through qualifiers to get into the main draw of the Rogers Cup. The grind goes on. Peliwo’s pro career has been pockmarked by injuries to his left ankle and his hip, and a virus that knocked him out for a month. He does benefit from ace coaching – by the Spaniard Galo Blanco, former coach of Raonic – funded by Tennis Canada.

Peliwo plays on promise, the possibility of much more. The costs are heavy. A typical full year of travel, which is on Peliwo’s tab, can be $100,000, yet he has earned $20,461 so far this season. He gets help from Lacoste and Tennis Canada, but the rest is cobbled together, including from family support. His appearance in Washington produced a $5,325 (U.S.) payday – “a good paycheque, for sure” – but then there’s reality of lower-rung like in early July, at a small Futures Tournament in Saskatoon, where he won one match and lost his second and earned … $258.

As with Raonic before him, Peliwo lives in Barcelona, where Blanco’s academy is based. Peliwo has yet to build steady momentum. Washington is a step: The loss isn’t ideal, but he got into some valuable practice sessions here with the likes of Frenchmen Richard Gasquet, No. 14, and Julien Benneteau, No. 46.

At practice Tuesday, Blanco monitored his student. Peliwo needs a lengthy, uninterrupted stretch of play and practice to progress, says Blanco. Peliwo holds his own against top-100 players, but needs to loosen up against players around his own ranking, to play freely, without fear. It takes time.

“He has the potential for the top-50, easy,” said Blanco. “First he has to try to get into the top 200, then the 150, then the top 100. It’s a question of step by step.”

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