By Kieran Heffernan
Whether it be about doubles tennis or the coronavirus, Gaby Dabrowski has been making her voice heard.
While play in her sport has fallen off during the COVID-19 pandemic, the 28-year-old Ottawa-born athlete has been active in her role as an elected member of the WTA Players’ Council. She’s recently been concerned with how the organization has handled the virus, including return-to-play rules, safety precautions, and making sure players’ concerns are heard.
While safety is obviously a huge priority, another challenge is ensuring tournaments are fair to all players.
“We have players that literally cannot leave their country, so a return-to-play obviously won’t be fair,” she explained. “So we’re trying to navigate those waters and try to figure out what to do in terms of ranking and prize money and different things like that.”
With the U.S. Open still planned to go ahead in late August, conflicting outlooks on tennis in the time of coronavirus have become clear. Top stars like Serena Williams and Bianca Andreescu have committed to competing, but other big names like Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal are uncertain. Dabrowski posted a tweet outlining her concerns, including the impossibility of keeping everyone in a bubble, and disappointment over the elimination of qualifying and halving the doubles draw.
She speculated that the mixed opinions about returning to Tour play may be due to unknowns about how the virus affects young healthy people and to athletes’ differing personal experiences with it. Cost may also be a factor, with countries such as Australia requiring returning travellers to quarantine in a hotel at their own cost.
“Maybe expense is not big for some players who’ve made a lot of money, but for players who haven’t made a lot of money that’s a big expense. And it’s also stressful to have to do that, to be in a hotel room alone for two weeks,” she said.
Dabrowski expressed hope that the pandemic could instead be a time for reconsidering how tennis is structured, writing on Twitter: “I wish we could use this hiatus to explore new designs of how and where we play tennis, like some real out of the box thinking.”
Although she doesn’t have all the answers herself, she said she believes there are others who do.
“I would love to talk to people who have ideas on restructuring the game and how to make it more fair for more players, how to get prize money down to the lower ranks, because you have somebody who’s (ranked) 200 in the world and some are barely breaking even,” she said.
“They’re playing Grand Slam qualifying; they’re amazing players.”
One solution she does have in mind to a system that she says is “top-heavy” and unsustainable, is regional circuits.
“I think tennis has an expenses problem, because we’re forced to travel all around the world, all year long, and so I would love to see some kind of regional circuit created so players don’t have to travel as far,” she said.
Pre-pandemic, Dabrowski was hoping to qualify for the Olympics, in the doubles event. She’s currently ranked 7th, which if it holds, would be good enough standing to qualify her outright. But she’ll have to wait and maintain her world ranking until June 7, 2021. The top 10 doubles players on that day (along with their partners) will be directly accepted to the Games, provided their country hasn’t exceeded six players per gender, or two doubles teams.
The Tokyo Games would be the second Olympics that Dabrowski would compete at. She and partner Eugenie Bouchard were a second round out in Rio de Janeiro in 2016. The tandem they lost to from the Czech Republic went on to win the bronze medal match.
Since the last Summer Olympics, Dabrowski has won Grand Slam mixed doubles championships at the French Open in 2017 and Australian Open in 2018. She also made it to the finals of Wimbledon in the women’s doubles event last year.
The extra year before the upcoming Olympics has given her the chance to take a mental break from tennis, as well as enrol in some university courses.
Dabrowski normally trains at Saddlebrook Resort near Tampa, Fla. and has been able to play tennis there with some restrictions, as well as do bodyweight exercises in a field rather than workout at the gym. She’s currently staying in Boston, where she has a different trainer.
Although the pandemic has become a barrier, Dabrowski has also been advocating for increased exposure for doubles tennis.
“I’ve played predominantly doubles for several years now and I see how much potential the game has and how little exposure it gets, and that it’s really promoted, not even a lot less than singles, but almost not at all,” she said, adding, “In the majority of tennis clubs around the world, people are playing doubles. So, it’s like how come we haven’t tapped into that yet?”
She also pointed out the benefits to playing doubles on a player’s life in general.
“When you play a lot of doubles, you learn way better communication, like how to be on a team. Especially for young kids, learning how to navigate giving feedback, receiving feedback, those are skills that I think are so good for your life in general,” she said. “When you’re just playing singles, that’s just you out there and yeah, it’s amazing to kind of be your own hero, but at the same time that’s not really conducive to life. In life, in the workplace, after tennis, we’re going to have to be working with people.”
In the future, she hopes to use her position on the Players’ Council to push for more initiatives for doubles like media days, kids’ clinics, and for more matches to be filmed.
Correction: Dabrowski did not commit to whether or not she would attend the US Open, but stated she had concerns. The article previously stated she would not attend.