On the public tennis courts of North Vancouver, Wlodek Mark Peliwo played several times a week with his wife Monika. He also bought his youngest son a racket to swing for fun. Filip Peliwo was only five years old and the boy was precocious, able to bat back a tossed ball with a volley.
Several years later, as the boy became fanatical about the game, Mark Peliwo, a massage therapist, stretched the budget for a $4,000-plus annual family membership at the North Shore Winter Club, a short drive from their townhouse. Filip not long after pronounced that he aimed to become the best player in the world – the same outward ambition voiced by a young Roger Federer when he was a boy growing up in Switzerland.
"We thought at the time it was just an inexperienced, naive nine-year-old boy," remembered the father. "But Filip was upset when we laughed. He said, 'No, I'm serious. I want to be the best tennis player ever.' And it's never changed."
The boy is now a young man, 18, and the No. 2-ranked male junior tennis player in the world.
This year, he made the junior finals, but lost, on the hard court of the Australian Open and the clay court of the French Open. Then, on the grass of Wimbledon in early July, Peliwo overcame deficits in the semis and finals to win the junior title, the first Canadian male to do so, joining a list of winners that includes Federer.
On Tuesday night, after a dizzying year, Peliwo returns home to the biggest professional tournament of his young career, a wild-card entry to the Odlum Brown Vancouver Open at the Hollyburn Country Club, where he often played in tournaments as a kid.
As his junior career comes to an end, the 5-foot-11 Peliwo now faces the challenging transition from young star to inexperienced pro. He is backed by Tennis Canada, the organization that brought Peliwo to Montreal to train full time at 15 and will continue to fund most of his costs in the next year, as it did for Milos Raonic at the same age.
Tennis Canada helped vault Peliwo to the top of junior tennis but it was his dad who steered the boy through the years before the Tennis Canada academy, not unlike Toni Nadal, the uncle of star Rafael Nadal. But Nadal's uncle is a former tennis pro, not an amateur enthusiast.
Mark and Monika Peliwo grew up in Poland and left the totalitarian state in the mid-1980s, first to a refugee camp in Italy, and then onward to London, Ont. They eventually settled in North Vancouver. After the family joined the North Shore Winter Club to get more court time, it was Mark who coached Filip, marshalling all the help he could.
The elder Peliwo leaned on his training in sports science from university in Poland, and his livelihood as a masseuse. He spent hours scouring the Internet for tips, benefited from the advice of an old friend from Poland whose boy was also a strong player, and shelled out for occasional private lessons. The strategy, from the start, was professional: nutrition, strength and conditioning, and video analysis.
In an interview at the family home, Mark – a competitive skier as a boy – highlighted his son's drive.
"The bulk of work was done here on a daily basis," Mark said. "We always talk about trainers, coaches, whatever, but how many 12-year-olds get up at 6 o'clock in the morning before school to train? That's where we in general realized how serious Filip was about tennis."
The Peliwos invested in their son. By 11, Filip challenged for national championships at his age level, and the Peliwos travelled to Florida for major international junior tournaments, the Eddie Herr and the Orange Bowl. There was also help from Tennis Canada, which staged camps in Toronto and Montreal for promising juniors as the organization overhauled its training system to nurture potential stars such as Filip.
Key mentorship was also found nearby: David Cox, a Simon Fraser University psychology professor with a specialty in sports, was a client of Mark Peliwo's massage practice, and also a member at the Winter Club. Cox, who worked with Tennis Canada, would counsel Filip as he progressed in the game, angry and petulant when he lost, like Federer as a teen.
It wasn't always fun. Vancouver is a remote outpost in the tennis universe and Filip's early teenage years were more about training than playing, which sucked some of the joy from the game.
"If you're just training, and training and training constantly, it's difficult," Filip said in a phone interview from Montreal. "We didn't have a lot of money to travel to tournaments."
Strains emerged. There were fights. But the bond between father and son was deep, and it was Filip's drive, rather than his father's drive, that underpinned the effort.
"The fact that he wasn't a crazy dad helped a lot," said Filip. "He obviously pushed me, because I wanted to succeed."
Filip arrived poised at the Tennis Canada academy for full-time training when he was 15.
"When Filip came, he had a very good base," said Louis Borfiga, who created and runs Tennis Canada's athlete development program. Borfiga remembered a boy who burst with enthusiasm and a focus on a pro career.
"What I like a lot in Filip is he loves to play tennis."
Junior champions are no guarantee to flourish as pros, but winners of junior Wimbledon, for example, have fared well. The four winners from 2004 through 2007, in their mid-20s now, have all cracked the world top 40, led by Gael Monfils of France.
From here to there, however, the cost remains steep. It costs an estimated $100,000 to fund a top-level aspiring teen. Tennis Canada pays most of it but the Peliwo family has for years scraped to finance Filip's tennis ambitions, money coming from everywhere, family friends, benefactors, Filip's older brother, the bank.
"We've managed over the years but our credit line is up to here," said Mark Peliwo, his hand raised high. "With Filip's commitment, we knew it was worth it."