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Local tennis player becomes Canada’s first female grand slam champ

Toronto 2015 Pan Am Games: Day 3 - Tennis
2017 French Open mixed doubles champion Gabriela Dabrowski. Photo: Steve Kingsman

By Dan Plouffe

Gabriela Dabrowski has always been a fighter. That much was evident from the start, says local tennis coach Tony Milo.

“I remember when she was 10 years old and we were running the under-14 provincial championships,” recalls Milo, who taught Dabrowski for roughly 5 of her formative years out of the Ottawa Athletic Club, and has continued to consult with the Ottawa tennis star as her career progressed.

“Girls were 4 years older, but for whatever reason, she got into the draw, maybe someone pulled out and she got in because it was in Ottawa,” he continues. “We thought it would just be a good experience to play against the older girls. I really wasn’t expecting anything.

“The next thing you know, she made the final of the tournament, and barely lost the final. It was a long 3-set match. She was smaller and weaker, but she just grinded her way through.

“It was almost hard to watch her fight so hard at that age. It was such a battle. Her technique wasn’t really that great back then. She just went out there and gutted it out.

“And that’s how she’s been her whole career. Just like that. To find a way to stay in the matches. She never goes down easy.

“I’ll never forget it.”

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So when 25-year-old Dabrowski and partner Rohan Bopanna fell 2-6 in the first set of the French Open mixed doubles final on June 8 at Roland Garros, Milo wasn’t surprised to see her come back and win the next one 6-2. Nor was he shocked when they stared a pair of match points. To see her prevail at the end of a 22-game deciding set? Par for the course.

“That’s a typical match for Gaby, that’s for sure,” Milo laughs. “It’s always a battle.”
With the French Open crown, Dabrowski became the first Canadian woman to win a grand slam tennis title.

“I always thought that she would get the opportunity to win one, or more,” indicates Milo, who believes Dabrowski’s father was key to instilling the work ethic required to succeed at a high level. “They put in the extra time, the extra fitness, the extra practicing that you need to do. She was very disciplined at a young age. She’s just continued on that path.”

Milo cheekily asked Dabrowski if she was enjoying herself in Paris the day after her victory, only to find out the newly-minted champ was already in England to practice on grass courts in advance of Wimbledon.

“It’s good old fashioned hard work,” Milo underlines. “There are no excuses. She’s a professional every day.”

That included a number of years where Dabrowski struggled as a young pro out of the junior ranks, but the Rio 2016 Olympian had turned a corner and managed to earn consistent paydays as a doubles player by the time she became a double doubles medallist at the Toronto 2015 Pan Am Games.

“It means a lot to me,” Dabrowski says of the French Open title in a Tennis Canada news release. “I have made a lot of sacrifices this year. I think it shows that if you work hard over the course of a few years, you can achieve your goals. It’s very, very special.”

While tennis takes her around the world regularly – including an April stop in Miami where she won the first top-tier WTA women’s doubles title of her career – Dabrowski visits Milo at the Carleton Tennis Centre whenever she’s back in town. The local tennis community was thrilled to see one of their own come out on top, says her old coach.

“Everyone’s really happy for her,” Milo signals, emphasizing the inspirational force Dabrowski has become. “It just makes the kids feel that it’s possible. It can happen to you, and Ottawa can produce a grand slam champion.”

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