Shortly before the coronavirus pandemic suspended the tennis season, it seemed like Canadian tennis was going to be on course for another milestone season. Mississauga’s Bianca Andreescu was getting ready to return from a knee injury after becoming Canada’s first Grand Slam singles champion. Laval’s Leylah Annie Fernandez had just made her first WTA final in Acapulco at just 17 years of age. Montréal’s Félix Auger-Aliassime had just made back-to-back ATP finals and seemed primed to take that next step into the winner’s circle.
In an era where the level of tennis in this country has never been higher, it can be easy to lose track of the emerging crop of young talent that seemed to be making waves on a monthly basis. However, there is one young player in particular, that has been making a steady rise in the rankings and that will soon be looking to emerge from the shadows of her peers, despite following a different path than most of them.
Meet 21-year-old Katherine Sebov.
Originally born in Toronto, Sebov’s tennis journey began by chance at the Valan Academy in Concord, Ontario, where she had watched her parents take weekly lessons from the club’s balcony. While her parents admittedly never expected to involve her in the sport, Sebov immediately became drawn to the competitive aspect of tennis, picking up her first racquet around the age of eight and later setting her sights on one day becoming the best junior at the academy.
“My first coach was Valery Iagolnik, the coach who started Valan Tennis Academy,” she recalled in an exclusive sit-down interview. “I am so thankful to him because he was the one that saw my potential as a player. Valery is deeply passionate about tennis and he is an incredibly competitive coach, [so] he helped me develop my competitiveness and my passion for the sport. He taught me the importance of fighting on court and the fitness that you needed to be successful. If not for him, I wouldn’t be playing tennis.”
When asked to reflect on her early years at the academy, Sebov looked back fondly and was quick to point out her early days of “competing in games with the other kids there and being the best I could be,” which set the tone for her introduction to competition at different OTA events.
As an active child “who would spend a lot of time outdoors,” Sebov says that she was never consistently involved in any other sport apart from tennis. She always wanted to grow up to be just as good as Maria Sharapova and Justine Henin—two of her childhood idols.
Within a year of picking up her first racquet, Sebov was already getting her first taste of competition at a small rookie tournament in Niagara Falls, where she recalls experiencing a certain nervous excitement at nine years old. “I was so nervous, but I loved it. I couldn’t wait to play more tournaments and compete against other players. Valery as a coach was the one who suggested I should compete, but it was natural because that is what I was training for,” she explained.
As her training intensified, Sebov slowly began climbing the provincial and national ladders, competing in every division from U12 to U18 with players who would become some of her closest friends but also her fiercest rivals. After finishing fifth at a couple of provincial championships between 2010 and 2012, the Toronto native’s most successful season on home soil came in 2013, where she won the U16 Indoor, U18 Indoor and U18 Outdoor Provincials. That year, she also finished second at the U16 Indoor Nationals, which is a memory that has continued to stay with her through the years.
When asked to reflect on her experiences while competing as a member of team Ontario, Sebov says she still looks back fondly on a period that really kick-started most of her competitive career. “It was such an adrenaline rush for me every time I would be around other players and competing against rivals, even in practice,” she said. “I wasn’t extremely confident going in because it was a bit of an unfamiliar atmosphere being in a place with the best junior players in the country, but as I played and progressed, I realized that I could beat any one of those girls—and boys too.”
With her main rivals during that time being Vanessa Wong, Katarina Kopcalic and Charlotte Robillard-Millette, Sebov says that it is ironic that her only meeting with one of her oldest rivals that has stood head and shoulders above the rest as her most memorable match to date.
“The most memorable match I had was at [the U12] Nationals in Calgary [in 2010] when I played Patricia Muamba, who was the number one seed at the time and with Tennis Canada,” explained the 21-year-old. “I beat her in straight sets in front of a big crowd of players, coaches, and parents. I’ve had a lot of great matches since then but that one is by far my favourite and maybe always will be until I am in the finals of a Slam.”
After finishing fourth in singles and winning the doubles title with Ontario’s Charlotte Petrick at the U18 Outdoor Nationals in 2014, Sebov slowly began phasing out competing at national-level events and soon found herself competing full-time on the ITF Junior Circuit. As one of the top juniors in Canada, Sebov had earned herself a wealth of incredible opportunities, but she did not choose a path like most of her fiercest rivals.
Unlike a lot of her compatriots who chose to move to Montréal to train at Tennis Canada’s National Training Centre, Sebov opted to stay true to her roots, choosing to prioritize her existing professional relationships over the formation of new ones. While she did try working with coaches from the renowned training centre for a couple of six-month blocks, the 21-year-old says that she just did not feel as comfortable in that environment.
“I tried to work with coaches from Montreal when I was 14 for six months and 16 for seven months, but I wasn’t feeling good there. Also, from the age of 12-13, I had already established relationships with coaches Simon Bartram at the Toronto Lawn [Tennis Club] and Robert Lansdorp in Los Angeles (who has worked with Tracy Austin, Pete Sampras and Maria Sharapova). They have been helping me a lot for years with my game,” she explained.
“In order to work with Tennis Canada, I had to give up my current relationships. There was an option for me to work with Andre Labelle and have a fitness coach at [the] Aviva [Centre], but they would not let me continue working with Simon Bartram at the same time. So, from the ages of 16-18, I continued developing with Lansdorp and Bartram, with my mom supporting me.”
Regardless of who she was working with, Sebov says that her mother, Oksana, has been equally instrumental in the development of her life both on and off the court in the last decade. “She has been a great help to me all these years and I wouldn’t be the player, athlete or person I am today without her help. It shaped me as a determined hard worker, an honest competitor, and I am not looking for shortcuts.
Through speaking with Sebov, it is easy to observe that, while she might be a little soft spoken at times, she is extremely grounded and self-assured, which is certainly reflected in the tenacity that she has continuously shown throughout her competitive career. Given all the sacrifices that she has had to make, it comes as no surprise that Sebov chose to fulfill her lifelong dream of becoming a professional tennis player over pursuing a post-secondary education like some of her peers, as she felt it was more important to maximize her potential as an athlete first. As she put it, “I barely considered going to school because I am that confident that I will make it in tennis. I thought that there was a big chance that college would tarnish my career in the sport, so I decided not to go down that road.”
Since making the decision to turn pro in 2016, Sebov has dedicated herself to the infamous grind of the ITF Pro Circuit, which has defined most of her young career. In the process of grinding out wins at lower-level events all around the world, the Canadian says that she has learned that “professional tennis is a whole different ball game” compared to the junior circuit, which has made her place a renewed emphasis on her emotional and physical fitness.
While this grind can admittedly bring more bad days than good ones, Sebov feels that her love for the game, paired with her desire to “trust the process,” has only strengthened her resolve as a competitor, and it has slowly begun to pay off in recent years.
With the 2018 season beginning to wind down, Sebov tasted her first bit of major success at the $60,000 event in Saguenay, Quebec, where she edged out Dutchwoman Quirine Lemoine in two tiebreak sets to win her first pro title on home soil. “There is no feeling like playing at home because it makes me proud as a Canadian. There is also a level of comfort because of the support from people,” she reflected, explaining that the victory was made even more special by the packed home crowd that day.
Since beginning to break through at the professional level, which has seen her ranking rise to as high as No. 192 in the world, Sebov says she has been grateful to receive more support from different sources—and with it, even more opportunities. Since reaching the top 275 in 2017, Tennis Canada has begun to support her with travel expenses and access to the Aviva Centre. In recent years, Yves Boulais has served as a source of support at the Ontario Racquet Club in Mississauga. During that time, Sebov has also served as a member of the Canadian Fed Cup team, helping to propel the nation to World Group II.
In her last Fed Cup appearance in 2018, the Toronto native faced off against Romania’s Irina-Camelia Begu. While the Canadians were unable to come away with the win, Sebov says that “it was still an amazing experience to play on such a big stage with a roaring crowd” in Romania, and it goes without saying that she will work for the opportunity to do it again in the future.
While she has reveled in the chance to compete in a unique team environment, Sebov’s focus remains solely on her own pursuits, as she has viewed the success of her peers as nothing but a tremendous source of motivation. “I just had to look at myself as an athlete and as a player to realize what was holding me back, which, in my case, was a couple injuries and getting more fit. Naturally, strength was not in my genes, and I needed time to build it layer by layer. I can say that I did, and I’m doing it literally on my own,” she said proudly.
With the current shutdown, Sebov has used a lot of her time away from the court to improve her physical fitness, as she has managed to find some creative ways to get in the same workouts with limited equipment. At the end of the day, the 21-year-old recognizes how fortunate she is to be living in a country that has access to proper healthcare and other basic necessities, and she can only hope to return to competition as soon as it is safe enough to do so for everyone.
With her ultimate goal being to win as many Grand Slams as possible while becoming the best player that she can be, only time will tell to see if this small-town Ontarian will be able to emerge from the shadows as one of the new leaders of this golden age of Canadian tennis. When her relentless work ethic is paired with her unabashed and refreshing self-confidence, there is a very good chance that Katherine Sebov could be a force to be reckoned with in the coming years!