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Away from the spotlight, Canadian tennis star Gabriela Dabrowski remains a force to be reckoned with

Gabriela Dabrowski smiles and gives a slight shrug when asked about her relative anonymity in Canada.

“I’m not looking for attention,” she said quietly during a break this week at Wimbledon, where she lost in the semi-final in women’s doubles on Friday. “I just try to live as true to myself as I can … because I think it’s very easy in this circle of athletics to get caught up in things that might be considered a distraction.”

Gabriela Dabrowski.

Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

The Canadian and partner Xu Yifan of China, seeded sixth, lost 6-3, 4-6, 7-5 to No. 12 seeds Nicole Melichar of the United States and Kveta Peschke of the Czech Republic on Friday. Dabrowski and Xu were up a break at 4-2 in the third set, but could not hold on.

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While Canadian tennis fans swoon over Denis Shapovalov, Milos Raonic and Eugenie Bouchard, it’s Dabrowski who’s been winning the titles. Last year, she became the first Canadian woman to win a Grand Slam championship when she took the mixed-doubles crown at the French Open with partner Rohan Bopanna of India. She followed that up by winning the same event at the Australian Open in January with Croatian Mate Pavic. The pair got to the final at the French Open in June. And now, at Wimbledon, she’s gone further than ever in doubles at a Grand Slam with her Chinese partner. She’s already won more Grand Slam titles than any other Canadian tennis player except Daniel Nestor, who has won 12.

Dabrowski, 26, knows that by specializing in doubles she’s unlikely to get the same attention as a singles player. The event is an afterthought for most tennis fans and it’s usually relegated to the fringes of television coverage.

It’s also far less lucrative. The winners of the men’s and women’s singles titles at Wimbledon this weekend will each pocket £2.25-million, or roughly $3.9-million. That compares with £450,000 (approximately $783,000) for the doubles champions and £110,000 (about $191,420) for the mixed-doubles winners, which, of course, the teams have to split.

But given her family’s modest financial circumstances – her father, Yurek, is a maintenance worker at the Westin Hotel in Ottawa, and her mother, Wanda, works for the City of Ottawa – Dabrowski didn’t have much choice.

“It was the finances,” she says bluntly when asked why she took up doubles a few years ago. She couldn’t afford a full-time coach and her parents had already mortgaged their Ottawa home and exhausted most of their savings just to keep her in tennis. So when she showed promise in doubles, the decision was simple.

“In doubles, I would go further in the tournament, more often than not. I enjoyed playing the doubles more and then it came to a point where it was like, ‘Well, I don’t have enough money to hire a full-time coach, but my doubles skill set is decent so maybe I should look to kind of focus on that and bump up my ranking and then hope that maybe I can find a steady partner, which is a huge asset.’ And that’s what I did.”

There are still plenty of challenges. Her relationship with Tennis Canada has cooled after she had a falling out with the organization in 2010 and left the national tennis centre in Montreal. She’d gone to the centre a year earlier as one of Canada’s top junior players, but quickly felt the program didn’t have her best interests at heart.

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“When you go to the national training centre, you’re grouped with other people and things are kind of generalized,” she recalled. When she asked for a more specialized program and a female coach, they refused. “It was either their way or the highway and so I guess I chose the highway.”

She headed out on her own and cobbled together a training program with help from her father. She’d also arranged a deal with the Saddlebrook Tennis Academy in Tampa, Fla., where she’d spent some time as a junior and earned a break on fees after winning the prestigious Les Petits As tournament in France in 2006. She still travels to Saddlebrook during the off season and gets coaching there when she can.

Finding a consistent partner for doubles also isn’t easy and it took a while to develop a strong bond with players such as Alicja Rosolska, Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez and Xu. By 2015, those pairings paid off, and she began winning major tournaments. She’s now ranked ninth in doubles and came into Wimbledon as the No. 1 seed in mixed-doubles with Pavic.

While she’s won more than US$400,000 in 2018, she still can’t afford a full-time coach and leans on her father for advice. He came to Ottawa in 1982 from Poland after the country imposed martial law. He knew nothing about tennis despite playing sports as a boy, until his daughter, and only child, began hitting a ball with a friend one summer on a public court near their home when she was 7. A man watching asked if she took lessons. “And I went home and I told my dad, ‘A man at the park, he has a beard and he asked me would I take lessons, what does that mean?’” she recalled. Her father accompanied her to the park the next day and met the same man, who convinced him to enrol Dabrowksi in lessons. Her father also began reading up on the sport, devouring books, videos, magazines and everything else related to the game. “He educated himself. He’s very analytical, very precise,” she said. “Anytime I’m struggling, I can just always call and ask. He’s still very invested.”

She’s enjoying her current success and knows it’s no path to celebrity, although the City of Ottawa is renaming a public tennis court after her. Her biggest ambition, aside from winning more Grand Slams, is making it to the Tokyo Olympic in 2020. She played doubles at the 2016 Games in Brazil and found the experience overwhelming. After that, she’d like to study interior design or environmental science one day.

“I’m just always trying to grow as a tennis player and as a human, but as a human first, because tennis is going to be over some day and I’m going to have to do something with my life,” she said. “That’s what’s important to me, so I’m not really disappointed that others may get more attention because that’s just the way the world works.”

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