Gabriela Dabrowski is the only Canadian left in any of the main events at the 2018 Australian Open – and also one of few players who are undefeated so far in the new tennis year.
Ranked no. 15 in doubles, she and partner, No. 14 Xu Yifan of China, won the Premier tournament in Sydney last week – defeating the retired Martina Hingis’ former partner Latisha Chan and Andrea Hlavackova 6-3, 6-1 in the final.
That puts Dabrowski and Xu atop the Porsche Race to the 2018 WTA Finals in Singapore – after only two weeks of the new season. They are attempting to reach the final eight, after finishing no. 8 in 2017, for the second year in a row.
Now 25, Dabrowski is from Ottawa, not necessarily known as a hotbed of Canadian tennis talent. “When I was growing up there was good competition until about age 13,” she said regarding the National Capital tennis scene. “Then you have to look at a more international pool of players.”
She spent some time in Florida and at 17 won the highly-coveted Orange Bowl U18 singles title in Miami. But in recent years she has become a doubles specialist on the WTA tour. “I had to find my own way,” she explained about her career evolution. “Within a few years I realized the skill that I could take advantage of, and earn a living from, while also playing on the circuit. So singles took a back-burner spot. And then of course when you play all the big tournaments – like here (Australian Open) and the (WTA) Premiers – you have better food, better physio and you have your hotels paid for. And you play against the top calibre players in the world so it’s hard to give that up. I would love to still be able to play singles (ranking No. 323) but it’s just so hard to manage at this point in my schedule since I have a committed partner who wants to play all year round. And to fight for a spot in the final eight again.”
That partner is Xu, four years older at 29, and a force of her own on the court.
“She’s really versatile and the fact she’s a lefty is an advantage on the serve,” Dabrowski said. “The way we play, she plays the deuce side even though she’s a lefty, which I think gives an advantage to her at the net. If she wants to be aggressive she’ll mostly have a forehand volley. It’s the same for me on the ad side.
“Also she’s a really nice girl – a very supportive partner. And she always tries to fight no matter what. We’re trying to grow together which is really cool. We’re both committed to being a better team.”
Xu, from Tianjin in China and about six inches shorter at 5-foot-5, also has kind words to say about her partner. “We started last year – it’s about 10 months – in March,” Xu said. “We feel great as a team working together.”
Specifically about Dabrowski’s talents, Xu added, “she’s a great athlete – very good on her serves and volleys. And also her ability to move on the court is fantastic.”
On Friday, Dabrowski and Xu reached the third round of the Australian Open with a 6-4, 6-4 win over Ekaterina Alexandrova of Russia and Latvia’s Anastasjia Sevastova.
Alexandova and Sevastova are not a regular doubles pair, which puts them at a disadvantage against a dedicated doubles team like Dabrowski and Xu.
“We have a strong net game and generally we can finish points in a few shots if we execute,” Dabrowski said about facing scratch or inexperienced opponents. “Sometimes their positioning doesn’t put as much pressure on you. Today I felt their (Alexandrova and Sevastova) positioning at the net didn’t put that much pressure on us. Usually you have an advantage just because you’re more experienced strategically in doubles but sometimes in tough conditions it doesn’t matter.”
Those conditions prevailed on Friday when the thermometer reached over 40 degrees. Dabrowski had a lot of trouble with her string tension – trying to string four or five pounds tighter but never really feeling comfortable. About the brutal heat, she said, “it’s a bit different. The heat in Ottawa is a bit more humid and here it’s super dry and your mouth gets really dry. But you also don’t sweat it out that much. It’s so dry you feel like the water just stays in your stomach.”
She sat down, a little red in the face and fatigued, just inside an air-conditioned area in the main Rod Laver Arena building to recuperate from the match that lasted an hour and 24 minutes. As she sat she said she had no idea who she and Xu would play next. It turns out to be the winner of a match between Mona Barthel and Carina Witthoeft of German and the 11th seeded team of Shuko Aoyama of Japan and Yang Zhaoxuan of China.
So far in her career, Dabrowski has earned $1,192, 518 (US) in official prize money – that includes her share of $26,661 for the win last week in Sydney.
On Saturday, Dabrowski will join forces with Mate Pavic of Croatia for a first-round mixed doubles match. Seeded No. 8, Dabrowski and Pavic will play Australian wild cards Lizette Cabrera and Alex Bolt.
Part of the success of the Dabrowski/Xu pair is due to the coaching assistance they receive from Scott Davidoff. An American who also works with Rohan Bopanna and has coached Daniel Nestor in the past, Dabrowski was lavish in her praise of his contribution.
“Scott is really helpful,” she said. “He’s so nice and he’s also really positive. He really helps you from his heart. He has a ton of experience with doubles players, which is not something that’s easy to find. Sometimes they’re a little more tailored toward singles games. So we definitely feel really lucky to be able to work with him.
Dabrowski became the first Canadian woman to win a Grand Slam title last June when she and Bopanna triumphed in Paris in the Roland Garros mixed doubles event. Now she aims to join Sébastien Lareau of Montreal (with American Alex O’Brien), the first Canadian male to win a Grand Slam regular doubles title (1999 US Open), and be the first woman to achieve that feat.
NOTE: The only Canadian playing in the Junior Girls or Boys events at the 2018 Australian Open is 16-year-old Layne Sleeth of Markham, Ontario, in the U18 girls. Her first-round match will be against Mana Kawamura of Japan.
Is this how we’re all going to end up – like this guy in Manly across the harbour from downtown Sydney – combing a beach in search of precious metal objects?