Juan Pablo Varillas: el futuro del tenis peruano

Escrito en Abril 2018 (en Inglés).

Después de ganar su primer trofeo de singles como profesional, Juan Pablo Varillas reflexiona sobre su carrera, la falta de sponsors y su futuro.

JUAN PABLO VARILLAS lifts the first singles championship of his career. In Turkey, more than 12,000 kilometres away from home, the young Peruvian tennis player surprisingly defeats a player ranked 200 places ahead of him in the final, a player that defeated him a year before in a different final.

“It was the hardest player I could have faced in the tournament’s final in terms of ranking”, he says, “I played an almost perfect game.”

Varillas faced a complicated battle and came through, just as he has been doing throughout his short career.

Ever since he became a professional five years ago, the 22-year-old has been playing without any economic support but that of his parents. Peru’s No.1 player constantly represents the national team in the Davis Cup, and yet he has no sponsors and only receives a small sum from the government and the national tennis association.

“My dream is to live off tennis, to be able to pay for my stuff, to be able to manage myself without having to depend on my parents”, he says quite emotionally, “They always help me […] (and) I wouldn’t be here without them […] but I don’t want to be like that forever.”

And Varillas is making merits in order to fulfill that dream.

In the past year, he climbed more than 250 places in the world ranking to reach his best ever position at 409, he reached four finals (twice as many as he had done previously in his career) and captured two trophies, a singles and doubles. The young Peruvian feels confident and believes his hard work will eventually help him complete his dream.

“By how I’ve been working, the fruits will come. I feel very good, very professional, this year will be very positive.”

His recent performances have propelled him to become the face and the future of Peruvian tennis, a country that once gifted the sport with great players such as Jaime Yzaga and Luis Horna, but that has fallen in disarray after the retirement of the latter and bad management from the national association.

HE HAD ALWAYS BEEN REGARDED as a promising young talent, but it was back in 2016 when he was launched into the national spotlight.

Varillas was 20 and was part of a young Peruvian team that faced Uruguay in the Davis Cup. He had previously played four matches (three in singles and one in doubles) with the national team and although he showed promise, he failed to win a single one of them.

Peru dominated the Uruguayans early in the tie but had a shocking meltdown as they blew a 2-0 lead –with Juan Pablo losing a doubles match in the process-, leaving the outcome of the series to be decided in the last match.

The stage was set in Lima, in his home city, for the decisive game. He was supposed to be watching the game from the stands but an injury meant he had the responsibility of winning the tie for his country.

“I’ve always dreamed of playing the Davis Cup. It was always my wish to play for my country.” says Varillas, “At first it was really hard for me, maybe in some games I wasn’t very confident, but with time I’ve turned it around.”

And it all began against Uruguay.

Varillas started off quite nervously, he wasn’t playing well, and by the end of the second set, he was 2-0 down.

“I started playing with a lot of doubts. It was really hard at the beginning, to get into the game. I didn’t feel like I was playing well. I couldn’t find my game and he (the Uruguayan) was destroying me. I was suffering a lot.”

It was a memorable match that most Peruvian tennis fans remember fondly, the match in which he rose to the occasion in front of his crowd. It was the day Juan Pablo Varillas became known throughout the country.

As he remembers the match, he tells me about a bad preseason he had in Spain earlier that year. One that affected his performance.

“I was playing very bad after my preseason in Spain. I didn’t feel comfortable. I wasn’t well physically; I wasn’t in my (average) weight. This made me feel doubtful and I added to those doubts, the nerves of playing the Davis Cup. It was difficult.”

The Uruguayan was visibly tired in the third set and gave it away to Varillas.

“He gave me chances. The match was decided in the best of three so I guess he must have thought ‘It doesn’t matter if I give him a set, I’m still winning”, says Varillas.

He went on to win that set 6-1 in less than thirty minutes as the Uruguayan saved himself for the fourth and –probably- final set.

Varillas began the fourth set as he started the match: nervous and uncomfortable. You could see it reflected in the score as he went 4-2 down with his opponent serving to make it 5-2. At that moment, it increasingly looked as if the game was already decided to go the Uruguayan’s way.

But it was his big opportunity. And under the eyes of a whole country, he began one of the most memorable comebacks I can remember.

“I was losing 4-2 in the fourth set. He (his rival) was close to hold his serve (and be 5-2 up) but he couldn’t. He missed two points by nothing: one was a drop that stayed in the net and (the other) a drive that goes away by a centimetre. After that, I played a couple of good points and I broke his serve.

“When I break (his serve), he was really tired and I, at that moment, didn’t feel tired, maybe it was the adrenaline (of the match) and I started to win it.”

Varillas won the next eight games and took the fourth set (6-4) in a fantastic exhibition of tennis and passion. He had no problems to defeat the Uruguayan in the last set (6-2) and finally win the series for his country.

It was a memorable match that most Peruvian tennis fans remember fondly, the match in which he rose to the occasion in front of his crowd.

It was the day Juan Pablo Varillas became known throughout the country.

“It was an unexpected triumph and it appeared when I less thought about it”, Juan Pablo says as he draws comparisons between that victory and his recent singles trophy, “just as I did in Turkey when I thought the tournament was the toughest one of the tour, I won it. It’s all in your head, you never know what is going to happen.”

It was the first great moment of his young career, which began when he was very young.

Juan Pablo singing the national anthem with the Peruvian team.

VARILLAS’S JOURNEY STARTED when he was five years old. His mom took him to a tennis academy during the summer so that he would leave the house. “No one in my family used to play (tennis)”, says Varillas, “they put me in (the academy) so that I left the house and stop bothering around, and do some sport”.

He kept on playing during years but although he was a good player, he didn’t stand out from the rest. Once he reached 14, however, everything changed. His coach -perhaps curious with his potential- advised him to train hard during that summer to see ‘what would happen’ and Varillas did so. At the end of that year, Varillas was the second-best under-16 players in the country. And the year after, there was no one better than him. A star was born.

Varillas continued his junior development until he clinched the 75nd spot in the junior world ranking.

As he finished high school, it was time to make a crucial decision. Would he continue playing and make the jump to the professional circuit or leave everything and begin university?

It wasn’t an easy decision and, at first, he attempted to juggle both university and his tennis career. “In 2013 I entered university and I tried to do both things at the same time but it was impossible”, he says, “I decided that I could study at any point in my life. But tennis was now. It is an opportunity that I wasn’t going to have in the future.”

With only 17, Varillas began his professional career.

It was a big change from the junior tournaments that he was used to play, and he struggled during the first months of his career: “It took my eight months to adapt. I didn’t advance from the qualifying stage in the futures (tournaments) and I thought ‘this way too complicated’.”

After some months he made the jump into the next level and started to make deeper runs into tournaments. “It’s a matter of getting used to the new rhythm and maintain yourself there.”

And each year, Juan Pablo keeps getting better and better, “Every year I’ve always been better than the last one, you can check my ranking. It motivates me to keep playing. I feel like a more complete play- er every day”, he says quite proudly.

He went from a player who couldn’t get past the qualifying stages in futures tournaments to reaching seven futures finals and winning one.

From being 1545 in the world to No.1 Peruvian player. And he did so without any sponsors.

WITHOUT THEM, I wouldn’t be playing right now.”

Juan Pablo knows that without the support of his parents he wouldn’t have been able get this far.

“They still pay for my career. I am winning more money; but I still don’t have enough to be able to pay for my career”, he says as he starts to think about the future, “If I keep improving at one point I will be able to sustain myself and also help them like they did with me.”

Very few Peruvian players have had the support that Juan Pablo has received from his parents, forcing many of them to retire early on their careers or to compete as half-time professionals after they failed to climb in the ranking and win trophies.

When I asked Juan Pablo if he thought about retirement if he failed to keep improving he was empathic to say that he didn’t think about it.

“It doesn’t go through my head. I’m calm because I keep on improving every year. Those thoughts (of retirement) are not helpful and can make you nervous. It can put an extra pressure on you. I don’t think about those things. This year will be very positive, but the next one will be even better and so will the one after that.”

Varillas believes that his talent and his hard work will help him achieve his dream.

He has made many sacrifices throughout his career and has come this far without any sponsors.

And as the future of Peruvian tennis, he will only look to get better.

“I’m happy all the work from the preseason is pay- ing off. I need to keep improving. I can’t stop now”, he says, “tennis is a very tough sport, you need to be a very complete athlete to be able to compete.”

His work ethic, desire and winning mentality have helped him become the player that he is right now and will continue to dictate the course of his career.

And with his talent and his age, I think it’s safe to say that this singles trophy won’t be his last.

And this won’t be the last time you will hear from Juan Pablo Varillas, the future of Peruvian tennis.

You can find a magazine version of this story here:

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