Polsat Sport TV Commentator Tomasz Lorek investigates the rise of Canadian Tennis through the eyes of doubles specialist GABY DABROWSKI
Without doubt, Canadian tennis is on the rise.
2019 US Open women’s singles champion Bianca Andreescu is a prime example.
Then there’s Eugenie Bouchard, the 2014 Wimbledon runner-up.
In the men’s competition highly talented world no. 12 Denis Shapovalov and no. 15 ranked 2016 Wimbledon runner-up Milos Raonić are further proof
From Montreal there is Felix-Auger Aliassime, and Vasek Pospisil is another Canadian player on the top 100.
A man from Vernon is also a unique doubles specialist, winning a memorable Wimbledon title in 2014 with Jack Sock in a five-setter over the Bryan brothers.
Throughout the years, Canada has provided many doubles stars. Among them there’s the lefty, legendary Daniel Nestor.
Nestor has won 91 titles in doubles… incredible stats.
In 1992, Nestor was good enough to beat then No. 1 in the world Stefan Edberg in five sets during the Davis Cup tie in Vancouver.
For some reason, the most successful Canadian tennis players have a very international background.
Nestor was born in Belgrade in 1972, then moved to Canada in 1976 with his parents. Nestor is not only a multiple Grand Slam champion in doubles, but also a gold medalist at the 2000 Sydney Olympics (with Sebastien Lareau) – it’s the only gold medal at the Olympics for Canada in tennis.
Raonić, another hard working athlete representing Canada, was born in Podgorica (formerly Titograd), so he’s another from the former Yugoslavia (Montenegro).
Add in Denis Shapovalov – born in Tel Aviv – and Gaby Dabrowski’s father being Polish, you begin to get a pretty interesting mixture of cultures.
Perhaps it’s a perfect mix to create a successful in tennis nation?
Gaby Dabrowski is a unique champion. She’s intellectual but is also hilarious in conversation. She is extremely professional in terms of her preparation to the game, but when you talk to her, you get a feeling that behind her Grand Slam trophies in mixed doubles, there’s a very interesting person to get to know…
“Actually, I brought myself to tennis. It’s a funny story,” she says.
“We just started with a friend at some courts near my house and then maybe a week or two later a man came to me and he was like ‘where do you take lessons?’ I was seven. And I was like ‘I don’t know’. He wasn’t a relative. Somebody who was walking around a park.
“It was this summer that both my parents were working and so my Dad had a friend come over from Warsaw.
“Her name is Hania and she has a son – Krystian. Hania was looking after me. Her son was 10 years old, I was 7.
“We were both playing and then somebody said ‘where are you taking lessons?’ And of course I didn’t know how to answer, because I didn’t know anything. I told my Dad later that night when he got home from work ‘there was a man in a park asking if I take tennis lessons.
“There’s a man with a beard at the park asking and my Dad was like…
“Then he came and saw Krystian and I hitting a ball back and forth and I was pretty good. The man talked to my Dad. It was first time my Dad has seen me playing.
“The man told my father he should get me lessons, so that’s what we did at a little club in my town.”
And what happened to that man who discovered Gaby’s tennis talent? “Honestly, I have no idea what happened to him,” she says.
“I think he had a kid as well that maybe he wanted to get into tennis, so he was curious where I was taking lessons. Anyway, I don’t know what happened to him, but I’m definitely grateful for Hania and Krystian who helped me to get into tennis.
“Of course, you meet tennis players who hold their racket or started hitting balls at the age of 3 or 4, but taking lessons at 7 is not a bad idea.”
Parents are usually the key ingredient as to why children get involved in any sport, but this time it was Gaby who brought herself into the game.
Dabrowski learned fast. Imagine, She defeated top seeded Kiki Mladenović in the Junior Orange Bowl in December 2009. “Yes, when I was 17 in the finals,” she recalls.
“A Long match, I won it, and I won Under-18 Orange Bowl. That was probably the highlight of my junior career.”
Gaby’s Dad is Polish and Mum is Canadian.
“My Dad Jerzy was born in Zamość, eastern Poland and now the family lives in Szczytno, near Olsztyn.
“They have lived there for a long time. Beautiful lakes and forests … I love it there.”
Gaby is very natural while having a conversation… “So, how old was my Dad when he came to Canada?” she asks herself searching for memories.
“So, was he forced to come to Canada because of the political regime in Poland.
“It’s a pretty incredible story. I keep telling him to write a book.
“My Dad was taking a sailing course to learn how to sail because it was his dream one day to sail around the world. So, there was an opportunity to take a course.
“He had long dreamed about a trip by sea like the legendary Norwegian adventurer Thor Heyerdahl.
“This course was around the Mediterranean sea. It was a few months long. During the trip the boat sank. They hit a storm.
A really bad storm and the waves were like very big, but rough. It wasn’t like one big wave came, it was very, very rough and it was very hard to manoeuvre the boat”.
“The boat sank and they had to take to lifeboats and were at sea for a while. I think maybe two days … And then finally they shot off some flares and a French tanker rescued them and took them to Greece.
“It’s very interesting, because my Dad wasn’t a communist and my family were not communists, when he got to Greece, he couldn’t go back to Poland.
The captain could go back and so were many of the crew. So for many weeks my grandmother didn’t know if he was dead or alive.
In the papers they said that there had been a boating accident and one person had died. It was very interesting at that time for him to decide what to do with his life.
He wanted to be in Halifax or Vancouver, because it’s on the water. He’s crazy, he has to be near the water still, even after the accident.
If the tough marshall laws lifted, could he go back to Poland, what should he do?
“But coming from the seas as he did, he got a choice of where to resettle. USA, Australia and Canada. And my Dad thought ‘Australia is amazing, but it’s so far away.
“Not USA because Poland wasn’t OK with USA at the time. And then Canada was like ‘oh, interesting! This could be a paradise. So, he chose Canada.
“He wanted to be in Halifax or Vancouver, because it’s on the water. He’s crazy, he has to be near the water still, even after the accident.”
So, how come he landed up in Ottawa?
“The person in charge of his case, knew what had happened to him, but placed him him in Ottawa. No water!
“I guess, a few years later he was working, he didn’t speak the language, so he learnt English in an adult school. He was working here and there, at a big hotel in Ottawa in the engineering department. A lot of Polish people are very good with hands skills Dad was very good at carpentry.
“And then he met my Mum Wanda. So my Dad told my grandparents he had met a girl named Wanda becuase of the name they thought she was Polish. That was a bit of a funny surprise.”
And Gaby’s Mum is Canadian, pure Canadian, way back to British ancestry.
“They got married, Dad very adventurous and did a world rally race but once my Mum got pregnant with me, he stopped racing cars.
“All attention on me! I have no brothers or sisters.”
So, having no brothers it had to be a splendid feeling to play next to Rohan Bopanna, an excellent doubles specialist and win the 2017 Roland Garros mixed doubles final.
“Oh, yes, absolutely, on Philippe Chatrier court, we played Anna-Lena Gronefeld/Robert Farah.
“Yes, that was a crazy match. We had played very well up until the finals. Then we were down match point.
“Similarly we won in Melbourne Park in 2018 with Mate Pavić. We played so good up until the finals and then in the finals we were really nervous. We were not as sharp, it wasn’t as clean, but again we just kept fighting and fighting. It was a very similar dynamic in both of these Grand Slam finals: 2017 and 2018.
“We had to lose the first set and then come back, find your rhythm towards the end of the match. It was tough, but I had great partners.”
Mate Pavić, a lefty player from Croatia was Gaby’s partner when winning the 2018 Aussie Open mixed doubles title.
Does Gaby speak Croatian? “A few words. If I pay really close attention, I can pick up some words. It was good, we have that sort of Eastern European kind of blood and philosophy.
“Emotionally we are close: Polish people and Croatian, but I think Polish people are a little bit more gentle. I find the Croatians, Serbians – they are very strong, they’re very stubborn, going through the wars, determined.
“But Mate is very laid back, so he was a joy to play with always. Very nice, very chilled.
We were going to play together with at the 2020 Australian Open, but he was not feeling 100 per cent.
Mate said to me ‘ maybe find somebody else, so I found Henri Kontinen.”
Another funny and crazy guy, this time from Finland.
“Yes, Henri is even more laid back. I’ve heard Finnish people are very good driving rally cars. My Dad told me that after tennis, he wants to take me to Finland and he is going to teach me how to race. Because Finnish people have tracks, they have proper cars, so you can learn how to drive rally cars.”
Gaby would be a good rally car driver, because she loves to experience pure emotions.
“Yes, I’m very emotional, passionate, stubborn, driven, but I also find myself a kind person. Like I don’t want do anybody harm. Ever.
Australia is a great place to explore nature, but does Gaby love to go to the mountains in Tasmania?
“I love to hike, but to climb them with all the harness and everything? I’m not an extreme sports person. Tennis is extreme enough. No contact unless in doubles you get hit by accident, it’s the worst that could happen. But extreme sports: no!
“I am not someone who loves the thrill. I can appreciate it from far, like if you want to do it, that’s fine, I get it, because you get that rush, but the most I would do is do a rollercoaster. Maybe in a future I’d like to learn how to drive a rally car and that would be my maximum. No harm, please. Emotions – yes, but not extreme.”
Can you sometimes hear AC/DC songs when seeing Gaby preparing for a tennis match?
“I am not so much into classic rock. I mean, I like some songs, but I am not an extreme rock fan. Whatever is popular, I’ll be like: yeah, that’s good. I’ll like more of the modern stuff like indie alternative, mostly dance music. I like classical music, too.
“Eine kleine nachtmusik” by Mozart, just relaxed and beautiful melody. But I like also what’s on the radio, it’s fun, what people know, you can sing, too. Would I fight for tickets for any artist concert? Hmm… Celine Dion.
That would be nice to see. Just such a talent. Her voice is so powerful and pure. Maybe also Barbra Streisand.
“My Dad likes Barbra Streisand, because her voice is so clear and without even trying. No yelling… No effort, so I think that’s just beautiful.
“I love Kings of Leon. I saw them in concert once at the O2 Arena in London. That was a good highlight of my life, that was fun. But you told me about a fabulous Swiss harpist maestro – Andreas Vollenweider, so I’ll listen to his music as well.”
Gaby is still so far from retirement, but what place in Australia she would love to explore?
“Oh, my God, so many! I want to go to Perth and Margaret River. I want to go on the Great Ocean Road, I haven’t done that yet.
I’d like to spend more time in Melbourne and actually see the museums, go to more restaurants and like immerse myself a little bit more into the culture.
“Every single day I’m leaving Melbourne Park at 9pm. I arrive mid-morning and I leave at 9pm and every day we play, so I’m too busy to enjoy the city. I would love to spend more time in Melbourne, because I think it has a lot to offer as a city.
And Tassie! I went to Hobart a few years ago. It was beautiful.
And they also have another road along the coast in Tasmania that some of my friends have done and the photos were gorgeous.“Byron Bay… The friends that I’m staying with, they’re going to Byron after the Grand Slam. I wish I could go with them obviously, but someday I’ll go”
Spending more time Down Under would be terrific. Who knows possibly it would include playing a didgeridoo?
“I have never played didgeridoo, but I’d love to try. You’ve tried it? Must be a fantastic experience.
White people don’t have these skills. We can’t do a lot of things.”
And books… Gaby likes to read a lot.
“I love reading books. All kinds: fiction, non-fiction, self-improvements. I love to read. The only reason I don’t do it sometimes, is because my eyes get tired. And then I listen. I love listening to podcasts or audiobooks. That helps a lot and it’s great for travel.”
In singles, you pretty often travel with your coach. How about doubles? Different structure?
“I travel with my coach from time to time. Actually it’s expensive to have a full-time coach. In doubles to make a good living you need to win a lot. So, you’re not guaranteed money in doubles. You come to a Grand Slam in singles and you’re guaranteed a big pay cheque.
“In doubles, you have to really do well and earn big pay cheques. So, for me to have somebody as a full-time coach is a little too expensive. I get people to help me here and there.
“Last year in Adelaide I knew a guy who has worked with Thanasi Kokkinakis and he used to work with Jarmila Gajdosova, so he was helping me out a little bit. And then there were some coaches that I work with in Canada and in Florida at Saddlebrook where I train. And then of course I talk to my Dad a lot.
” Dad is kind of…’He’s not my first coach, because my first coach started at that local club where I began lessons. But Dad is kind of like the second one. He educated himself about pretty much everything you can tennis-wise.
“He was my main coach for a long time.
“I work with different people here and there, but again, it’s just once in a while. The first coach I used to work with was Tony Milo in Ottawa. He helped me a lot from 8 to 14”.
Mark Woodforde, a fabulous Aussie doubles specialist, winner of 67 titles in doubles including 12 Grand Slam crowns, said once that a game of doubles is like a jazz music.
What about Gaby’s perspective on Mark’s statement? Is doubles more sophisticated than singles?
“I think so. There’s a lot more involved with strategy. You can be a really good singles player and struggle in doubles if you don’t read a player or if you play against two doubles guys or girls who really know what they doing.
“I think being like a really good singles player isn’t always indicative of being a really great doubles player.
“You can also be good in both. Doubles can be more than just power. There’s a little bit more finesse involved and touch and feel and reactions. You reflexes, noticing the speed of the ball coming at you and how to handle that. You don’t see this dynamic that much in singles. It’s a lot more physical from the baseline, you got a lot of people running.
“They have to be strong and in doubles it is more how strong you are mentally and how you handle the pressure situation especially when we play outside of Slams on the WTA tour when we have no super tiebreakers.”
In a fascinating movie “The Bookshop” directed by a Spanish artist Isabel Coixet, there’s a wonderful metaphor: “a woman with no kids is like a port where a ship doesn’t call”. What’s Gaby point of view?
“Interesting, that’s a very good metaphor … I’m not sure if I agree with it, because I think as a woman it can be very challenging to go for your big dreams and your big goals and have a family.
“It is very tough to do both, because ever if you have a child and you still go for your career, the child is not gonna have you 100 per cent. Or you are gonna be with your child 100 per cent, but then your career might suffer a little bit.
“I feel like it’s really hard to do both perfectly. So, for me, I would just say, right now I don’t have any plans to have a family, but if it happens to meet somebody someday, that really impresses me, I will consider it. If I feel that this man will be a very good father, because I know I have big goals in my life and I want to help a lot of people and there’s gonna be a good support system behind it.
“So, if all the stars align and I meet somebody that I think would be a great father and he really wants children, I would consider it. Otherwise, if they don’t want children, I’m OK with that. Honestly, I’m quite happy. I don’t know if it’s an only child thing a little bit… I’m not used to sharing my space or my stuff or finances, you know, those sorts of things.
“And I also want to make sure that I’m 100 per cent financially stable, so no matter what happens, I know that I can take care of the child and I can guarantee it. I would be really responsible at that.
“So, for now – no, but we’ll see, who knows?”
Gaby Dabrowski, a winner of nine WTA doubles titles and a sentimental soul as well.