Gaby Dabrowski has come a long way in her ten-plus years as a professional tennis player, both on and off the court. The Ottawa native has an developed an incredible amount of self-awareness and belief in her abilities and at the age of 27 she admits that wasn’t always the case. “I wish I would have learned when I was younger that your thoughts are not reality and that you can just let a bad thought float on by without attaching any meaning to it, especially the ones that are self-sabotaging or allow for self-doubt.”
Sitting in the top-20 in women’s doubles likely erases a lot of the doubts that Dabrowski had when she was younger. She’s carved a niche as Canada’s go-to female doubles player and has no problems with people calling her a “doubles specialist” either. “To be a specialist in anything is I think pretty cool so I definitely take pride in that. I like to remind people that I still play singles and it’s not something that I’ve given up on, but at the same time I definitely feel that doubles has a lot of value and I’m really grateful for the opportunity to complete in almost like a sub-sport of tennis.”
While Dabrowski’s career might have gone down a different path from the one she envisioned growing up in the sport, she has absolutely made the most of her talent in doubles and has developed into one of the premiere female doubles players in the world. She holds the distinction of being the first Canadian woman to win a Grand Slam of any kind, with two major titles in mixed doubles – the 2017 French Open and 2018 Australian Open. Along with more consistent results and high level of achievement comes, of course, more attention and a heightened sense of awareness amongst her opponents. While Dabrowski is now regularly a top seed in both women’s and mixed doubles draws, that comes with a price as well. She is no longer flying under the radar with regular partner Xu Yifan in the doubles world and admits that can pose a challenge at times that she didn’t have to deal with before.
“I think before we had an advantage – just teams didn’t know us. We had never played together,” Dabrowski explained. “But the more you play together the more players get to know your game style and your strengths and weaknesses, especially together, so it changes the dynamic. We’re always trying to improve and I wouldn’t go as far as to say reinvent ourselves, but you’re constantly checking to see where people are picking up on your patterns and how to maximize what you’re good at. So that’s kind of where we’re at right now.”
There are also some benefits of course to being ranked so high, such as receiving the occasional bye, which helps to reduce time spent on court. Being seeded also normally means you can avoid some of the top teams until the later rounds of a tournament and hopefully by that time things are starting to click.
“It’s nice to be seeded honestly. Usually then you don’t get to play a top team till the later rounds and that helps sometimes when you’re playing the lower ranked teams. I feel that our experience definitely helps in those situations and then getting those matches in before playing the top teams is always something you want instead of facing them in the first round.”
Aside from her thriving WTA career, Dabrowski thoroughly enjoys representing Canada in International competition. The anchor of the Fed Cup team is doubles in recent years, Dabrowski can be counted on to give Canada a consistent and reliable presence when called upon. Being a part of the recent swell of tennis success in the country is also something that she is enjoying. “It’s great. Players from so many different backgrounds having the opportunity to excel is wonderful,” she says. “It’s really cool.”
In keeping with this international theme, Dabrowski doesn’t hesitate when asked about her proudest career achievement to-date, with that coming at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio where she embraced the opportunity to play along with the best athletes in the world. It wasn’t even so much the tennis that made the experience such a highlight, but rather being a part of a diverse group of Canadian athletes who were competing at the highest level in their respective sports.
“I loved playing Rio in 2016. That was unreal. It was amazing staying in the athlete village, interacting with other athletes who are the very best in their field.”
That ability to connect with other athletes and genuinely want to see them succeed at what they do is a noble part of Dabrowski’s character and personal code of ethics if you will. Despite enjoying a level of success in tennis that many others in the sport can only dream about, Dabrowski still feels strongly that all athletes should have the opportunity to grow within the game and be afforded a fair chance at advancing their careers. In that department she feels strongly that tennis still has a long way to go. Recent changes to the sport implemented by the ITF and other governing bodies like the ATP and WTA have left many players on the outside looking in. A restructuring of the “minor leagues” of the tennis world have had the opposite effect of what was claimed they would have. For Dabrowski this is unacceptable.
“It’s a disgrace. The ITF in its mandate says that it wants to grow and promote tennis globally and what they’ve allowed to happen is the exact opposite of that. If they don’t make some serious changes soon, then you’ll definitely see less people playing tennis, and that’s not what we want – tennis doesn’t have that luxury. We want as many people playing as possible.”
In terms of what allowed Dabrowski to make a career out of playing tennis, she readily admits that none of her success would have been possible without some helping hands along the way. As with so many tennis professionals, that came from the many sacrifices that her parents made for her as she developed as a young tennis player.
“Obviously my parents, they played a huge role in everything. There isn’t one particular thing. When I was a teenager my Mom had the higher paying job so my Dad would make sure I was safe and travel with me and he learned a lot about tennis, everything he could, and tried to pass on his knowledge to me in my teen years. It’s not easy having a parent coaching you often but I know at the end of the day that there’s nobody else who’s looking out for me as much as my parents are and without the sacrifices that they made there’s not a chance I would be playing so I would say a massive ‘Thank You’ to them for everything.”
While Dabrowski might have relied on the help of others to help get her career going, she’s certainly the one who has stepped out onto the court and taken her game to the next level in recent years. Doubles will remain her focus for the foreseeable future as she puts all of her efforts into qualifying for the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo. Beyond that there is a strong desire to give her singles game a real push – something that Dabrowski feels she has never truly been able to do.
Gaby moves forward behind her strong serve.
“I don’t think I have ever fully given myself to singles to really see what my true potential is. So it’s something that I would like to explore within the next few years. For the time being to qualify for the Olympics is my biggest goal and with doubles I have the best chance of doing that. So for now it’s going to kind of stay the same, I’m going to play doubles at all the big events and I’m going to try to play singles wherever I can squeeze it in. I don’t want to sacrifice the doubles for the singles at this very moment but within the next few years I could see it happening.”
I asked Dabrowski which player she would most want to play doubles with if she could have her choice of anyone – male or female. After careful consideration she proposed Andy Murray, someone who isn’t especially known for his doubles prowess. Her answer came less from a tennis perspective however and more from an admiration of his dedication to the sport and being known as a true advocate for equality and transparency in tennis in the hopes of keeping it on the right track.
“I really respect him and his family. The kinds of people they are. It’s really rare to find that kind of authenticity in a high level of sport where it’s just so clear and everyone speaks so highly of them. I just always admire Andy staying true to himself throughout everything.”
Whether she realizes it or not, many of the qualities that Dabrowski admires in Andy Murray are ones that she too displays on a regular basis. She has grown into not only a very talented player on the court but an outspoken one off the court as well. Her strong moral compass should make her a role model to young tennis players who look to find their place one day on the professional tennis circuit. Dabrowski may be a doubles specialist on the court, but off the court she is simply special – a rare example of a professional athlete who is not just in it for their own pursuit of glory but one who also wants to see others afforded every opportunity to enjoy their own successes as well.