It’s a hot and sunny, picture-perfect afternoon, and Vasek Pospisil is crushing serves on a stunning blue tennis court set by a vista of water, condos and palm trees, as a photographer perched atop a ladder captures his every move from overhead.
The 23-year-old Canadian is the subject of an elaborate photo shoot for the athletic apparel company ASICS Ltd. Tucked behind the crews of stylists and lighting people on this late December day sit his parents, Milos and Mila, enjoying the spectacle.
They can’t help but reflect on their son’s breakout 2013 season and the long and winding journey that landed him where he is today – entering the Australian Open ranked No. 30 in the ATP world rankings, nearly 100 spots higher than he was a year ago.
Pospisil began carrying around a tennis racquet as soon as he could walk. He was the youngest of three boys and the only born in Canada to a family who had recently emigrated from the Czech Republic. Rather than starting in a tennis club with lessons like many, he took up the sport on free community courts in Vernon, B.C., learning with his brothers under their father, who was working two jobs at a brewery and a flour mill while teaching himself to coach tennis through books and magazine clippings.
Pospisil grew into a promising young player. The father-son team afforded trips to Florida by driving from Western Canada in a used Winnebago RV to play youth tournaments or train in the warm weather, staying at rest stops along the way.
The fond memories of those journeys and a coaching partnership that spanned 13 years wash over the father as he watches Pospisil enjoying the fruits of a pro athlete’s success. The lean and tanned easy-going 6-foot-4 rising star is whisked in and out of various tennis outfits, primped and accessorized, posing, smiling and hammering tennis balls for the cameras in the warm Florida sunshine.
“Vasek is so easy going and he never complained about anything; even when we were eating McDonald’s on the road or staying in poor hotels in different parts of the world, he was always appreciative,” Milos said. “He proved I wasn’t a crazy dreamer, he did really have talent. Now, it’s like he’s living a dream.”
Pospisil had rallied to career-best results in 2013, despite losing most of his off-season training period to a five-week battle with mononucleosis.
There was his poignant march to the Rogers Cup semi-finals where he faced Milos Raonic, two Canadians in the final of the national open for the first time. There was his role in Canada’s historic Davis Cup run to the world group semi-finals, huge upsets over top-10 players Richard Gasquet and Tomas Berdych, and an epic late-season five-set showdown with Roger Federer.
“Anything is Pospisil” had become a fitting catch phrase.
For an elaborate photo shoot, ASICS flew a crew to Bradenton, the coastal west Florida city where Pospisil now trains in his off-seasons on the same grounds as women’s star Maria Sharapova at the renowned IMG Academy’s Bollettieri Tennis Program. After his success in 2013, ASICS, which also endorses Gaël Monfils and Samantha Stosur, has given the Canadian a significantly bigger deal than he had in past years – more money and more exposure in its marketing campaigns.
Pospisil credits much of his success in 2013 to changes he made when he joined forces with French coach Frédéric Fontang in late 2012, a coach known for his elite technical expertise.
Fontang had Pospisil completely overhaul his undisciplined diet, prioritized regular physiotherapy for better post-match recovery and insisted upon a more aggressive style that fit his athleticism.
“I would tend to stay back and play longer rallies and just get comfortable on the baseline, and because I’m relatively athletic, I could get away with that to a certain level, but not if you want to get to the ranking I reached in the past year,” Pospisil said. “The general theme is to be more aggressive. I’m making my way toward the net, improving my volleys, to finish the point at the net quicker.
“It’s those little details that make a difference between being ranked [No.] 40 or 20.”
Pospisil had spent so many years under his father’s tutelage, the family unable to afford things such as club fees and elite coaching. But also there was trust in father’s lessons and a reluctance to put his game in the hands of others.
“Did his love and obsession of tennis somehow influence mine?,” Pospisil writes on his website. “Did he have it planned all along to ‘push’ me to be a tennis player? Maybe, maybe not. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that I wanted it just as much as he did.”
Pospisil won the first tournament he ever played, at 6. A much bigger tournament victory came as a nine-year-old entry in the U.S. “Little Mo” Nationals.
“Here’s this little Canadian kid from Vernon who didn’t even belong to a tennis club, and he won this tournament over kids from all over the U.S.,” his father said. “So then we just kept going, working harder and harder, setting the goals really high.”
In 2002, Pospisil and his mother moved from Vernon to Vancouver to try out a new coach, living in a tiny apartment while his father stayed behind in Vernon to earn money. He also began competing internationally with Tennis Canada teams. But two years later, they all reunited in Vancouver and Pospisil resumed working with his father, who continued to eagerly learn coaching from the many they met in their travels.
When Pospisil was a teenager, his father often took him back to the Czech Republic in summers to stay with grandparents, and they were welcomed by the national training centre. During Canadian winters, they would make trips to Boca Raton, Fla., stay with friends and practice on community courts.
By the time he was 16, Tennis Canada had opened a new National Training Centre in Montreal, offering full-time training to develop elite players. Pospisil was invited, but declined. He did, however, begin getting Tennis Canada financial support.
It wasn’t until 2010 that he tried a coach other than his father when Tennis Canada suggested Frédéric Niemeyer, once Canada’s top-ranked singles player and a Davis Cup player who had been working with the rising Raonic. Wanting his son to learn from a former pro player, Pospisil’s father insisted he take the opportunity.
“Niemeyer had great playing experience and had done great things with Raonic, and it turned out to be a great decision for me,” Pospisil said. “I improved a lot in those two years, and I owe a lot of my success to him.”
Pospisil began the 2010 season ranked No. 339 as a singles player. He didn’t break into the top 100 until April of 2012, but struggled to stay there until this past summer. Rolling over Berdych and John Isner at the Rogers Cup in Montreal helped boost him up the rankings and he hasn’t relented since.
Under Fontang, with the diet changes and his lengthy battle with mono a year ago, Pospisil dropped 13 pounds and has been leaner since. Their goal of reaching the top 32 by the end of 2013 was attained, so now they’re reaching higher. They brought on Brazilian trainer Cassiano Costa and bumped up Pospisil’s athletic training to extreme levels in the first three weeks of the past off-season.
“He can compete with the best players because his body is very athletic,” the 43-year-old Fontang said. “Now, it’s in the mind – ‘I deserve to be top 20, top 10.’ It’s confidence. Vasek has the personality for that.”
They pushed him to his limits with things like a lengthy series of hill sprints, interspersed with burpees, the tough and highly-aerobic move combining a squat, push-up and jump combo that many trainers love.
“The first three weeks were the hardest I’ve ever worked in an off-season,” Pospisil said. “I’m feeling now I can play six, seven sets without a problem because of all the fitness I’ve done. Now, feeling great in the third set and not losing any points to fatigue has opened my eyes to that.”
Already in 2014, he ran to the semi-finals in Chennai, India, his first ATP event of the year, before retiring due to a back injury versus top-seeded Swiss player Stanislas Wawrinka. Pospisil is expected to be fully healthy for the Australian Open.
Currently, his father coaches young Canadian tennis players in Vancouver, and the family has a condo in Bradenton, where they spend time in the winters.
“My parents have made a lot of sacrifices for me, everyone in my family did, and it’s great to see that being rewarded, especially everything my dad did for me,” Pospisil said. “It’s nice now to see them really enjoying the moment of me playing well.”