She has won more Grand Slam titles than any Canadian tennis player not named Daniel Nestor. But Ottawa’s Gaby Dabrowski has her sights set on a different prize in 2021.
“My main goal is to qualify for the Olympics,” she said during a recent interview. “Other than that, all I really care about these days is improving my game and getting a little better each day.
The Olympic Games are the “epitome of success” for Dabrowski.
“It means you can consider yourself one of the very best athletes in the world. It’s a special feeling to compete alongside other athletes outside of your sport who have made tough sacrifices like you have.
“At the Olympics, tennis doesn’t feel like such an individual sport. You are surrounded by greatness and you are part of something much bigger than yourself. You play for your team and your country. You play for that little girl or boy watching on the screen and you’re hoping that your performance inspires them to never give up on their dreams.”
Pan Am Gold! Dabrowski, right, partnered with fellow Ontarian Carol Zhao to win the Ladies Doubles Gold Medal for Canada at the 2015 Pan-Am Games in Toronto.
The Games of the XXXII Olympiad, originally planned for 2020, have been re-scheduled to this summer as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. They are slated to run from July 23 to August 8. The Olympic tennis tournament will be July 24 to August 1 at the Ariake Tennis Park, Tokyo.
The qualification process for the Tokyo Games is based on ATP rankings for men and WTA rankings for women. There will be 56 direct qualifications per gender in singles, 64 in doubles and 32 for mixed doubles. Players can accumulate ATP or WTA points until June 7 this year. The International Tennis Federation will confirm the names of qualified players to national Olympic committees by June 10 and the committees will confirm these choices by June 17, according to www.tokyo2020.org.
Dabrowski competed in the Rio de Janeiro Olympics in 2016, losing in the second round of women’s doubles with partner Eugenie Bouchard. Those Games were also threatened by a virus, Zika, as well as security concerns.
While she still plays singles from time to time on the WTA tour, Dabrowski’s major successes have come in doubles and mixed doubles. She became the first Canadian woman to win a Grand Slam title in 2017 when she and partner Rohan Bopanna of India won the mixed doubles championship at the French Open. She followed up that victory with her second Grand Slam mixed doubles title with partner Mate Pavic of Croatia at the 2018 Australian Open. In 2019, she lost in the women’s doubles final at Wimbledon and the mixed doubles final at the French Open.
Dabrowski is one name on a short list of Canadian Grand Slam champions. Daniel Nestor won eight doubles and four mixed doubles Grand Slam championships. Sebastien Lareau won the U.S. Open doubles in 1999 followed by Vasek Pospisil’s doubles title at Wimbledon in 2014 and Bianca Andreescu’s U.S. Open singles victory in 2019. Dabrowski also won doubles gold and mixed doubles silver medals at the 2015 Pan American Games.
Ranked number 10 in WTA doubles at the time of writing, Dabrowski reached top 10 in women’s doubles in 2018 for the first time, with a career-best number 7 and repeated that top 10 achievement in 2019 when she finished the season ranked number 8, according to www.wtatennis.com.
Her first WTA main draw wins were in 2012.
“I suppose I have matured since then, but I don’t think I’m too much different as a player. Mentally, the one thing I do better now is disassociate tennis from my identity as a person. When I used to perform poorly, I would internalize a lot and consider myself to be a failure. Nowadays, I know my tennis results have nothing to do with who I am as a person.”
Despite her top 10 ranking and Grand Slam championships, Dabrowski says her confidence wavers all the time.
“I think the best thing to do is to focus on the process and not the outcome. When you focus on your process, your mistakes become your learnings and you don’t lose faith in your tennis. I am a highly analytical person, so naturally I doubt everything, including myself. I have had to do a lot of inner work to try to quiet my mind, especially when competing.”
Orange Bowl Champ! Dabrowski won the prestigious Junior Orange Bowl singles title in 2009.
“I have worked with several sports psychologists throughout the past seven years. This has helped me tremendously. A psychologist is trained to see your blind spots and where you get in your own way. This information helped me become more aware of the areas of my mind and game that needed attention. I also find focusing on breathing and implementing consistent meditations to my routine is key to maintaining good balance. Working on your body and mind is very important and it’s great to just do a little bit every day, At one point, everyone can hit a tennis ball. But can you bring your level when it counts?”
While some of Dabrowski’s most notable professional results have occurred in recent years, she has been winning championships for a long time. She became the first Canadian to win the prestigious 14 and under Les Petits As tournament in France in 2006 and followed that with the Junior Orange Bowl singles title in 2009.
Dabrowski started playing tennis at age seven with her father, Yurek, at Russell Boyd Park in Gloucester, an Ottawa suburb and later at the now-closed Ottawa Athletic Club. The tennis courts at the park were re-named in her honor in 2018.
“I don’t think there necessarily is an optimal age for kids to start playing tennis. The age of seven is pretty standard, but you can start any time before then. If you want to be a professional, you probably need to start by the time you are about ten years of age to give yourself a decent chance.
“I was probably eight when I played my first local tournament. Winning is almost always fun, but losing, not so much. I am still learning to lose in a more productive way and to look at a match objectively. My tendency has mostly been to get emotional so I’m working on having a more even keel attitude.”
Dabrowski says she can’t remember if there was one particular stroke she found difficult to learn as a child, but added it might have been a kick serve. “My coach at the time, Tony Milo, would tell me to let go of my racquet into the right-side fence to develop the correct motion. He was right!
“Tony was my first coach and then my Dad was always involved as my coach from the age of about eight or so. I have worked with many different people over the years, but no one full time. One person who gave me a lot of insight about doubles was Rennae Stubbs as we trained together at Saddlebrook when I was a teenager,” Dabrowski recalls.
Milo, still coaching at the Carleton Tennis Centre in Ottawa, remembers her childhood strokes differently.
“Thinking back, I would say she used to struggle a bit with her forehand. By the age of ten I remember her having a very good kick serve,” he said during a recent telephone interview.
Milo says he knew Dabrowski was “something special” when he first met her as a child.
“She was so into it. She loved being on the court. Great focus and she grew quickly. I could tell early on that Gaby wanted something more than the other kids. She fell in love with the sport and wanted to perfect it. I eventually learned not to book another lesson immediately following sessions with Gaby because she didn’t want to leave until she got the shot we were working on that day. She was intense about her tennis as a child, and I would use the word driven to describe her as a professional. Her improvement and results show it.”
Milo quickly responded when asked what young players could learn from Dabrowski’s childhood experiences.
“Work ethic. Gaby always showed up ready to go and worked hard every minute she was on the court. She gave it everything she had…right from the beginning.”
Dabrowski says her favorite coaches are people who can “adapt to the player” rather than having “one way of doing things.”
“To me, this is the mark of a really good coach. However, some players thrive in a more regimented and one-dimensional environment. It’s best to think of what works best for you.”
“Picking the right coach starts with your financial situation. A lot of tennis players have a parent as a coach because they can’t afford much else. In other cases, the parent feels the need to take control because they don’t see a better alternative. If you have the means, picking a good coach is subjective,” she added.
The amount of practice time and the types of practise have changed for Dabrowski since she was a child.
OTA Junior Days. Dabrowski playing the 2005 Ontario Outdoor Junior Provincial Championships at Kew Gardens in Toronto.
“Practice time each week varies for sure. When I started out, I played a few hours a week. When I was about 14, I played around eight hours a week and then after that about 12 hours a week. During tournaments, though, it was much less.
“I think there was a lot more variety in my practices when I was learning the sport. I spent a lot of time everywhere on the court learning every type of possible shot. Now, my practices are more disciplined, and I try to have a specific purpose for each one. My intensity hasn’t changed. I have always taken time on the court very seriously, but I would say there are days when I am less intense now than I was as a child,” she explained.
For kids, determining the right amount of practice time is subjective, she says.
“Some days more, some days less. It depends on how you feel physically and mentally. It is important to develop the use of all spins, topspin in particular. Also, developing serve disguise and placement are key because this is the one shot you have most control over.”
While proper practices are key for the development of a young tennis player, so is time away from tennis, she says.
“Don’t focus only on tennis. Do other things. If tennis becomes the be all and end all you will mostly likely burn out or even quit before you can reach your potential. Also, keep seeking advice from others and experiment if it works. Don’t find yourself trying to do everything alone. And, finally, keep your arms loose and relaxed and your legs active and dynamic when you’re playing.”
She “highly recommends” that kids play sports other than tennis.
“I did play other sports, but none too competitively. Swimming is great for the body, basketball and soccer are great for footwork and co-ordination, volleyball is great for learning how to jump and react quickly. The list goes on.”
While certain of the benefits derived by playing other sports, Dabrowski hesitates when talking about the importance of youth tennis tournaments. She remembers playing “all kinds of sectionals and provincials” in the Ontario Tennis Association and recalls that she was “usually around four years younger” than the age category tournaments she played.
“I’m not sure there is a right or a wrong answer on whether it is good to play youth tournaments. Some tennis champions played none at all and have done exceptionally well. Some (others) played a pretty full competitive schedule and have multiple Grand Slam titles. I think it is important to understand the child and what could work for them.”
She adds another thought about the development of young Canadian players.
“Tennis Canada should distribute their funding more broadly and support local clubs instead of putting all of their funding into one or two players. In my opinion, the emphasis should be put on continuing to develop players where they live and are comfortable rather than the player being plucked away and taken into a new environment.
“If a coach has developed a player to the point where a National Tennis Centre is interested in that player, why make any changes then? If the player needs further development, Tennis Canada should help and be open-minded as to what that could look like.”
Dabrowski has won her Grand Slam and other titles playing with different partners. Playing doubles adds pressure, she says, because you don’t want “to let your partner down.” Basically, (to find a partner) you just ask or get asked to play. Typically, you ask players who are either ranked higher than you or players who you think you can play well with. There is always pressure to play well,” she explained.
Despite her professional success with numerous partners, she says she definitely “did not dream of where I am now. My journey has been unconventional. When I was a child, I dreamed of playing singles on the big stages. When I ran out of money in my early twenties, I had to get creative. That’s when I began focusing more on doubles.
“Of course, it’s always important to have dreams and goals, but what I am discovering now that is even more important is the why. Why is that your dream? Why is that your goal? Sometimes when we are young, we think we know why, but when we get older the reason changes. If you know your deepest why, you will be able to maintain your motivation and drive. You will really be excited to wake up in the morning.”
Dabrowski’s current dream is to improve her game, get a little better each day and qualify for this summer’s Olympic Games. “Why,” you ask? As she told the Ottawa Citizen in a 2018 article titled Meet Gabriela Dabrowski: Ottawa’s overnight tennis success, 19 years in the making: “I love representing Canada. That’s all that matters at the end of the day.”