CANCUN, Mexico -- When Gabriela Dabrowski and Erin Routliffe first became a team back in August, things didn’t go so swimmingly.
Playing tournaments in Montreal, Cincinnati and Cleveland, they won four matches and lost three. And yet, the losses were close, and they weren’t playing their best tennis. It gave them hope, but they needed to clear the air.
“We had another really tough loss in the Cleveland semis, where we learned a lot about each other in that loss, as uncomfortable as it was,” Dabrowski said before the GNP Seguros WTA Finals Cancun began. “And then we were able to talk about it, talked with our coaching teams. And they were basically like how do you support each other unconditionally? How do you like to be supported in those tense moments?
“And it was just very open and honest dialogue as to what you need when you’re not playing your best tennis on the court. How can your partner help you in those moments?”
Routliffe added: “When you’re under emotional distress, there’s things that you don’t want to hear. It’s not like either one of us was doing it intentionally, but you never want to make your partner angry or more upset -- because we’re already agitated.”
That heart-to-heart made all the difference. In only their fourth tournament together, they won all six of their matches at the US Open on the way to the title -- and a healthy helping of history. Dabrowski became the first Canadian woman to win a major doubles title, while Routliffe was the first from New Zealand to win the US Open.
It comes down to chemistry
Within the most individual of sports -- a discipline whose physical and emotional demands can be extraordinary -- doubles is the polar opposite. It’s about teamwork, personal sacrifice, problem-solving together. There’s an undeniable strength in numbers, of course, but as in any relationship some unique challenges as well. There’s someone to share the glory, but also to absorb the blame when things go sideways.
Doubles teams, like snowflakes, are all inherently different. Some are formed early, based on their country of origin. Others come from disparate backgrounds, find a connection and play together for years. And then there are the so-called doubles specialists who have mastered their craft and move fluidly from partnership to partnership.
The eight teams assembled at the WTA Finals fit all of these diverse descriptions. Coco Gauff, Jessica Pegula and Barbora Krejcikova are all ranked among the Top 11 in singles, and two are major champions. In the next tier are Elise Mertens, Katerina Siniakova and Laura Siegemund, all Top 100 players. And then there are four players who aren’t ranked at all in singles -- yet here they are.
The 16 doubles players in Cancun come from 10 different countries: the United States (4), Czech Republic (2), Japan (2) and Australia (2) have the most. The average age is just over 29, but Vera Zvonareva is 39 and Gauff is only 19.
In doubles, it doesn’t matter. It comes down to chemistry. All teams have the same goal. In a sport where nothing is permanent, try to build something valuable, a structure of synergy. Matching personalities, not to mention global schedules, turns out to be something of an art form.
Right out of the box
Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova were paired together for the first time as juniors at 2013 Roland Garros -- and won the title. A decade later, they are by far the most decorated team here.
This year’s Australian Open title was their seventh major doubles win. A year ago, they won three of four. Throw in a gold medal from the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, and you have a formidable team with a vast database of shared experience.
What are some of the technical things that make them so hard to beat?
In a Monday interview, when the question was posed, Siniakova started laughing.
“We will not tell you,” she said, smiling, “because then the opponents will know.”
Oh, they already know.
Although they spend some time before each match discussing specific strategies with respect to their opponents, Krejcikova and Siniakova have a tremendous, almost telepathic rapport on the court.
“I think communication is the most important thing, and we can do this very well,” Krejcikova said. “We just know each other for a very, very, very long time.”
Siniakova described it this way: “It just goes like it goes and you feel good, yeah. You are just feeling what the other one is doing.”
Demi Schuurs knows that feeling. The 30-year-old Dutch player has been at it for a long time. A dozen years ago, she was a junior doubles champion at the Australian Open and US Open. She’s won 17 titles and reached at least the quarterfinals of three of the four majors in both women's doubles and mixed.
She’s also reached the WTA Finals with four different partners -- 2018 Singapore (Elise Mertens), 2019 Shenzhen (Anna-Lena Gronefeld), 2021 Guadalajara (Nicole Melichar-Martinez) and 2022 Fort Worth (Desirae Krawczyk). Krawczyk also made it to Guadalajara with Alexa Guarachi as her partner.
How did Schuurs and Krawczyk get together 19 months ago?
“You always have some players in your mind that you’re going to match with,” Schuurs said. “Personalities on court, off court … game styles, many things. If you see a chance to play together, you’re going to talk about it. Like, `Hey do you want to play? How do you see it?’ That’s how it starts.”
Krawczyk was between regular partners and liked the off-court vibe she shared with Schuurs.
“Took a chance and took some time, but it’s worked out,” Krawczyk said. “She’s very good at the net. I try to use her strengths as much as I can. When I’m at the baseline, I can set her up. She can do her thing.”
It took all of about three matches for Vera Zvonareva and Laura Siegemund to feel comfortable together on the court. Their first pairing came at the 2020 US Open -- and they won. Three years later, after injuries and life in general often intervened, they again reached the finals in New York.
There are very few occasions, they said, when one surprises the other.
“I usually have an idea what Laura would do in this moment,” Zvonareva said. “Laura is a great mover, and sometimes even before she moves, I go to the other side. I just have this feeling sometimes, `Now I need to switch or do something else.’”
At the age of 39, Zvonareva still possesses uncanny instincts.
“Sometimes,” Siegemund said, “I’m like, `Yeah, OK, I made the move too early. I got passed.’ But then I say, `Wait a minute … let’s check.’ And Vera usually somehow reads that and recovers the ball.
“It’s something that I almost expect to happen -- I just sense her movements.”
While most teams have a brief meeting -- hands covering mouths to avoid lip-reading -- before every serve to discuss point-specific strategy, once the point is underway, it’s a more fluid situation.
“Say it’s an overhead and Demi’s looking to close, or maybe she’s anticipating them hitting a short ball and she’s already there,” Krawczyk said. “I’m going where I need to cover her before she even gets there.
“When you play with each other and practice all the time, you kind of read each other’s minds. You know what their habits are, you know what their instincts are, you sort of get that telepathy a little bit”
One of the critical pieces in these partnerships is sacrificing for the team.
“You need to figure out what someone likes, what someone doesn’t like,” Shuurs said. “And sometimes maybe you have to do something that you don’t like, adjust to make the team better.”
Achieving the double-double
Navigating an elite singles career is a difficult feat in itself, but what happens when you have twice as much on your plate?
That’s the burden shared by Americans Coco Gauff and Jessica Pegula. While they are the No.3 and No.5-ranked players in singles, they came into Cancun as the top doubles team as well. The logistics can be daunting.
“We probably should practice doubles more,” Pegula said. “When we played in Beijing, we were laughing. We definitely felt like we haven’t played in a while. We felt kind of off. But it was funny, the other day we practiced and we saved the last 20 minutes just to do some doubles points, kind of get back into the rhythm.”
Their friendship allows them to communicate clearly -- and honestly. Ultimately, in one way or another, these doubles teams stress the importance of communication.
“Being able to express whatever feeling we’re having to each other no matter what it is,” Routliffe said. “And then you don’t think that anything you’re feeling or thinking is necessarily wrong. It’s OK, because you’re verbalizing it and your partner is validating that they’re supporting you.”
Added Dabrowski: “Erin is giving me permission to miss. It’s OK to make a mistake because we have a bigger goal than that shot in that moment. To achieve bigger goals, you have to take risks. And you can’t take risks without being willing to make mistakes. And so giving each other permission to miss -- that was huge.”
You could see the payoff at the end of the US Open. Routliffe fell to her knees and shared a hug. Even after Dabrowski shook the chair umpire’s hand, Routliffe was wandering around the court in a daze.
“It was a joyous moment,” Routliffe said. “There was a sense of relief at the time. When you’re a good tennis player, growing up people talk about your potential and to be able to say you’re a Grand Slam champion. It’s kind of a dream.
“The feeling, you saw it all over my face.”
And what of their time here in Cancun?
“Thrilled,” Routliffe said. “Two weeks ago, we didn’t even know if we’d be here.”