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Canada's Dabrowski and Routliffe aim for second straight Grand Slam tennis title

Erin Routliffe, Gabriela Dabrowski Erin Routliffe, Gabriela Dabrowski - The Canadian Press

Tennis player Gabriela Dabrowski felt a connection "right away" when she started playing doubles with fellow Canadian Erin Routliffe last season.

Results quickly followed as the duo won the U.S. Open in just their fourth tournament together. Their strong form continued through the fall and has both players feeling excited ahead of the Australian Open and 2024 season.

"I'm really proud of how (we) have come together to be able to achieve something so great but doing it in a way where we're really on each other's side," Dabrowski said. "That's really unique I think."

Dabrowski, an Ottawa native, is ranked seventh in the world in women's doubles. Routliffe, a dual citizen who represents New Zealand internationally, is ninth.

"If you can trust your partner and feel like they're beside you no matter what, then I think it's a recipe for success," said Routliffe, who grew up near Toronto and lives in Montreal.

Canada has only two singles players ranked in the top 100 entering the season's first Grand Slam. Montreal's Felix Auger-Aliassime is ranked 27th on the ATP Tour and Leylah Fernandez of Laval, Que., is 36th on the WTA Tour.

Main draw play begins Sunday (Saturday evening in Canada) at Melbourne Park. Auger-Aliassime will open against Dominic Thiem of Austria while Fernandez has drawn a qualifier for her first-round match.

Joining them in the singles draws are Denis Shapovalov of Richmond Hill, Ont., and Milos Raonic of Thornhill, Ont., who are both using their protected ranking.

Shapovalov, who missed the second half of last season due to injury, has dropped to No. 116 in the world. Raonic, who returned last June after an injury absence of nearly two years, holds the No. 317 position.

Shapovalov will open against a qualifier while Raonic faces 10th-seeded Australian Alex de Minaur.

Rebecca Marino advanced past fellow Canadian Katherine Sebov to make the first round of the Australian Open.

Marino beat Sebov in two games before Sebov retired in the third with the physiotherapist examining her wrist.

Gabriel Diallo fell 6-3, 3-6, 2-6 to Belgium's David Goffin on the men's side of the qualifiers.

Rob Shaw is the lone Canadian wheelchair tennis player in the field. The North Bay, Ont., native competes in the quad division for players with varying levels of upper and lower limb impairment.

Regina's Keegan Rice is entered in the junior competition.

Dabrowski endured some challenges in the first half of the 2023 season. She missed over a month with a back injury last winter and had middling results with four different partners from January through early August.

"Some of (the partner changes) were my decision and some of them not," she said in a recent interview. "That was really difficult. It's kind of like a relationship. It's hard to be broken up with.

"It's hard to hear that someone doesn't want to partner with you anymore even in a professional and business sense. So I think that was very difficult to manage."

However, the changes created new opportunity. Routliffe and Dabrowski made their debut together as a duo at the National Bank Open.

"I was able to take something that was really hard and actually turn it into a really good learning experience," Dabrowski said. "I got the chance to partner with someone who was completely new, someone I've known for a really long time but I've never actually played with on the pro circuit."

The pair lost in the round of 16 at Montreal and fell in the second round at Cincinnati a week later. Dabrowski and Routliffe reached the semifinal at the next tour stop in Cleveland but dropped a match tiebreak.

Things really started to click, Dabrowski said, after some "really good conversations" following that tough defeat.

"We learned a lot from each other about how we like to be supported on the court," she said. "It's not easy to know the love language, the support language, of another person. You can't read minds.

"So Erin told me how she likes to be supported in difficult moments or when she's nervous and vice versa."

They were in strong form at Flushing Meadows, reeling off six wins in a row to become the first-ever Canadian Grand Slam women's doubles champions.

Routliffe, who was born in New Zealand, first picked up the sport as a youngster in Caledon, Ont. She later trained at the National Training Centre in Montreal.

"I always say I wish I could play with both of the flags but obviously that's not a thing in tennis or really any sport," she said. "I'm super proud to be Canadian. There's nowhere else I would have rather grown up. I'm so grateful."

Dabrowski and Routliffe reached the final at Guadalajara last fall and won at Zhengzhou, China in October. The duo reached the semifinals at the WTA Finals before Dabrowski helped Canada win its first-ever Billie Jean King Cup title.

Play at the Australian Open continues through Jan. 28.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 12, 2024.

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