Inspired By Nadal, Varillas Makes History For Peru In Paris
Editor's note: This story was translated from ATPTour.com/es.
Juan Pablo Varillas claimed the biggest win of his life on Friday by seeing off Hubert Hurkacz to book a place in the fourth round of Roland Garros, becoming the first Peruvian to reach the last 16 since Jaime Yzaga in 1994. To do so he has had to fend off fifth set challenges against #NextGenATP Chinese player Shang Juncheng in the first round, Spaniard Roberto Bautista Agut in the second round, and finally against Pole Hurkacz.
In the process, Varillas also managed to do something else; he sent a message of hope to the young people of Peru.
“I think it’s a very good thing for my country,” said Varillas. “Being a professional tennis player is not an option there, so this is a good example for the children. With hard work, discipline, perseverance and belief in yourself, I think it’s possible. It will be a good boost for the children to continue to pursue their dreams of being professional tennis players so that their parents don’t pressure them.
“It’s an incredible feeling and it’s difficult to describe because this triumph is a result of many years of hard work, of coming through the ranks, of making sacrifices all the time, of the support of my team, my family and the people around me. That leads you to experience and enjoy moments like this.”
It was precisely those people that stopped him from retiring from tennis in 2016. Back then, struggling with the dip in confidence that comes with a lack of results and after six months of fruitless hard work in Barcelona, Varillas was considering hanging up his racquet. Suddenly, the words of his idol Rafael Nadal had stopped making sense. “Hopefully we’ll meet someday on Tour. Practise hard!” the Spaniard told him in 2013 during an exhibition in Peru, where they played a doubles match together.
The four photos of Nadal hanging on the walls of his parents’ home in Lima went from being a motivation to a reminder of a time when he seemed to have reached a dead end. The dream of coinciding with his hero had all but evaporated.
“I thought ‘I’m not cut out for this, competition on this level is not for me’,” admitted Varillas.
In fact, he considered going back to studying engineering at the Catholic University of Lima, a degree he had set aside years early to fully focus on tennis.
However, the Lima native trusted the advice of his loved ones. Since then, slowly but surely, the results have kept coming. The 2020 Australian Open was his first experience of a major, and despite losing in the second round of qualifying, he shared a locker room with Nadal and realised that it had been worthwhile fighting for his dream. Finally, he crossed paths with his idol on the professional circuit.
The support of his family also proved crucial early in his career.
“In the early years, they were the ones who helped me,” he remembered. “I was playing in Futures tournaments for almost six years. They supported me, trusted me and never pressured me. They played the role of parents, but without interfering in the tennis. They were with me through thick and thin. They deserve all my gratitude. It’s the first time they have come to see me at a Grand Slam. I’m happy to have the chance to share this moment with them.”
Last August he broke into the Top 100 of the Pepperstone ATP Rankings and this week in Paris he has claimed his first three wins at a major.
“Doing that here is special. Roland Garros is the tournament I always dreamed of playing in. I have also dreamed of winning matches here, and it's amazing now that it’s happening. I’m so proud,” added the world No. 94.
He came very close to achieving that dream one year ago. He was two sets up against Felix Auger-Aliassime in the first round but went on to lose. Twelve months on, he now has three wins in the main draw of this season’s Roland Garros. That winning mentality was largely fostered in Buenos Aires, the city he has called home since early 2017.
“In Argentina I completely changed my life. I started to mature there and improved a lot in every way,” said Varillas. “There are so many great players, coaches, fitness coaches, physios and sports psychologists in that country. All that competition makes you raise your game and prevents you from resting on your laurels.”
Amid all the success stories from Argentinian players at his year’s clay-court major, Varillas could easily be confused for one of them. He has an Argentine coach (Diego Junqueira, former World No. 68), he drinks mate, eats medialunas and is a Boca Juniors fan. However, he has not forgotten his roots and still works hard to inspire new generations of players in Peru.
“I try to set an example,” he explained. “I had Lucho Horna to look up to, and now I can be that for other kids. It’s a wonderful responsibility and I try to use it as extra motivation.”
Now, Varillas is surely facing the biggest challenge of his career; Novak Djokovic in the fourth round at Roland Garros. He only learned who his opponent would be a few minutes after sealing his passage to the next round.
“I didn’t know, I found out in the on-court interview,” he said. “Playing against one of the biggest players in history on one of the most amazing courts on Tour... I’m so excited about the opportunity of going out there and winning. It’s the perfect stage to continue this great week.”