The 'Doubles Dossier' takes you inside the game to get to know the stars of the WTA's Doubles Circuit. Canada's Gabriela Dabrowski reached a career-high No.7 in doubles and has qualified for the Shiseido WTA Finals Shenzhen in the last three seasons. Dabrowski sat down with WTA Insider at the 2020 Qatar Total Open for a wide-ranging discussion of her tough path to the WTA Tour and her vision for the future of the doubles circuit. This is Part I of that interview.
WTA Insider: How did you first pick up a tennis racquet?
Dabrowski: Kind of accidentally. Nobody in my family played tennis, which is a bit of a different sort of story because, for a lot of tennis players, either their parents played or their siblings played. So they were at the tennis club with their family and they just kind of joined in. For me, it was not like that at all.
Basically, I was seven years old and it was a summer when both my parents were working. One of my dad's best friends came over from Poland with her son, who was three years older than me, and looked after me while I wasn't in school. So that summer, we picked up some racquets and we went to the park, which was just by my house. And we started try to hit the ball back and forth. There was a man who had come to the park and he'd asked me where I took lessons. I was like seven. I had no idea what was going on. I was like, I don't know.
But I told my dad later that night when he came back from work. I was like, Dad, this man at the park, he had a beard, and he was asking me where I take lessons. Initially, my dad was like, what? (laughs) Who is this guy? He was very concerned.
So he came and the man was there. They got chatting. My dad didn't even realize that we had started playing tennis. But the man said, oh, if you haven't put your daughter in lessons maybe you should because she looks like she has pretty good hand-eye coordination.
So then that fall I was put into lessons at a local tennis club. The first one was like 30 minutes then it goes to an hour and, instead of once a week, you go twice a week and it slowly builds. Within a year or so, I played a couple of local tournaments and then a year after that I played more. I'm from Ottawa, so we started traveling to Montreal or Toronto for little junior events. So that's how it all began.
WTA Insider: What did you like about it?
Dabrowski: I always liked sports that had to do with hand-eye rather than foot-eye. So I preferred tennis, volleyball and ping pong to soccer. That I was pretty good at it probably made it more fun. I guess also being an only child and then being out on the tennis court by myself is kind of relatable. It wasn't such a foreign feeling, just kind of being by myself and entertaining myself.
In the beginning you could just say that I was lucky to be athletic. So I was pretty good at it and that got the ball rolling. For me, initially, it wasn't like: "Oh, I love this." It was: "Oh, I'm good at this so I love this."
WTA Insider: At what point did that flip to: "I love this and I'm good at this"?
Dabrowski: Honestly, it took about 20 years (laughs).
It's very tough as a young girl in an individual sport to make close and real friendships. Being an only child, I didn't have a big family at home. I was by myself a lot. So initially, while that was something I liked because I knew what it felt like, as the years went on, I found it was something that I was missing a little bit.
And of course, once you start traveling internationally and competition gets bigger, you feel more pressure. But you also feel like: "Okay, I'm pretty good. I've won a couple international events." You feel like you're close to the best in that sport, even as a teenager. So you're thinking, I need to keep going. But, at the same time, it was definitely challenging for me to enjoy the alone aspect of it as the years went on.
It's very tough because one day you're competing against each other and the next day you want to be friends. Sometimes it's hard to do both. Some of us are able to do both and that's amazing. I think those relationships are very special in tennis. But if there was a way to go to have it happen more naturally, then I think tennis can be a lot more fun for a greater span of years for most female players.
WTA Insider: At what point did you think you could play tennis professionally?
Dabrowski: Honestly, I would say I was fairly young only because in Canada we didn't have that many players at the time. So, if you're having good international junior success, it's not a guarantee that you can make it on the pro tour, but it is a good indicator. So, a lot of people who had experience in tennis were telling me: "You've gotta pursue this. This is something that you should go for. You have the potential, try to fulfill it."
My parents really had no idea because they had no background. So they didn't know what the competition was like. They had to learn along the way.
But my dad was pretty involved in my tennis when I was a teenager because he's very athletic himself and he has a good eye for biomechanics. So he would help me a lot, technically. But, on the flipside, he didn't really know what it felt like to be by yourself competing, the mental side.
So that's one thing I wish that I had when I was younger, a little bit more guidance in that aspect of tennis. Obviously having your parents' support is amazing but, at the same time, they only know what they know and they are doing their very best. But sometimes you just need your dad to be dad, your mom to be mom. So it would have been nice to have a little bit of different direction when I was a junior. I think I would have enjoyed tennis more at that point.
WTA Insider: What was it like for you, having your father as your coach?
Dabrowski: It was very intense. My dad comes from Eastern Europe, from Poland. So in his mind, this was a gateway to a better life, which is a very common thing for parents, especially Eastern European parents, when they really come from nothing. So for him, sport was a ticket out. I definitely felt like, as much as my parents were very supportive, it was also very intense. And sometimes it was hard to manage. I was also a pretty stubborn kid so I'm sure it wasn't easy on my parents as well (laughs).
You forget to enjoy playing. You forget tennis, at the end of the day, is just a game. You just want to be on that path of progression and take a little from every loss, a building block, and you try to apply it to the next one. But sometimes, when you're so caught up in results and trying to make it, you forget about those building blocks. But those are the things that actually lay a foundation for you to be a better player.
That's where I felt when I was a junior, I was missing a little bit of that guidance from a coach who had experience on the tour. Maybe a female coach who understood female emotions a little bit better. That's one of the things that I wish I could have changed because I think that would have really helped me.
WTA Insider: Did you have federation or sponsor support?
Dabrowski: Unfortunately, I didn't have very much support from my federation. They made a lot of promises but reneged on a lot of those, unfortunately, even when I was a top junior and I kind of earned my place, I'd earned the support.
That was a very tricky situation because it was a time when my parents were kind of running out of money. So, again, it's high-stakes pressure. It felt like every result, every tournament was make or break. But, unfortunately at the time, the tennis scene in Canada wasn't so big. We hadn't had the success of like Genie [Bouchard] or Bianca [Andreescu] or, on the guys side, like Dennis [Shapovalov] or Milos [Raonic] or Felix [Auger-Aliasime], so there wasn't a whole lot of attention on the tennis market. You really had to stand out for someone to grab onto you and say I'm going to help you.
So that was definitely a big challenge. I wish I'd had the federation support in a way that I felt would have really benefited me, like training abroad. I think it was a lesson for them in a way. A lot of the things that I had asked for - support to train abroad in Florida, in Spain, to work with a female coach, to work with better fitness trainers - other girls were getting a few years later. And they didn't force you to leave your hometown and come to a national center to train.
To uproot yourself and to move to Montreal is a very challenging thing to do. You're so used to your family and your friends. Tennis is, again, already so lonely. So to remove someone from their home situation - for training and fitness for many hours a day and also go to school - is a lot for a teenager.
WTA Insider: How did you make the decision to primarily focus on doubles?
Dabrowski: I actually went to the National Training Center for a few months and I did have some success. But at the same time, I got injured for the first time. I was almost anemic because the coaches were not really paying attention to nutrition and, at 17-years-old, it was my first time away from home. So I didn't know what I was doing.
At that point, I kind of had no choice but to just go it alone and find my own path. That's when I transitioned to the ITF Circuit. My dad still traveled with me a bit. If I could afford a coach here and there, I would try to bring one but I couldn't afford one full-time. So it was really tough. There was a few years of that, which was great, but I needed that extra step and I needed that little bit of extra guidance to go to the next level and have somebody there by my side.
Financially, it just wasn't possible. So it came to a point of like, OK, what do I do now?
Doubles was my solution. If I was playing a singles tournament and I was losing first or second round, I was also making the semis or finals in doubles. So I started thinking if my skillset in tennis can be tailored to doubles then I can have success. I tried to focus a little bit more on that and play with the best partners I could play with.
I was lucky enough to do that and then raise my ranking enough to where other partners wanted to play with me. Now I have the privilege of playing all these tournaments.
There was definitely a very tricky moment in my early 20s where I was like: "What do I do now? I can't really afford a coach to make me better but I need to get better to improve my singles ranking." I'm really, really grateful for doubles to be there.
Stay tuned for Part II of our interview....