Gavrilova: Dashing into Aussie hearts

Published by Vivienne Christie

Daria Gavrilova won over the Aussie public in Melbourne. Photo: Getty Images
As Daria Gavrilova surged to a career-best showing at the Australian Open, the new Aussie hero showcased a personality that’s as vast as her potential.

She loves vegemite and avocado on toast, says “arvo” instead of afternoon and has long had a favourite AFL football team (Carlton, if you’re wondering). Born in Russia but happily living in Melbourne for many years, there can be no questioning the Aussie qualities of Daria Gavrilova.

That was especially true after a stunning home summer in which Dasha – as she is affectionately known and loves to be called – “officially” represented Australia for the first time thanks to the citizenship that was granted in November.

Gavrilova couldn’t have been more excited at the opportunities it presented. “It’s hard to put it into words,” she enthused as she prepared to represent Australia at the Hopman Cup in Perth. “It will be my first time. I will get a bit nervous of course, I’m a human being. But I’m just really looking forward (to it) just playing here. Seeing the flags, I just can’t wait.”

And as it transpired, she couldn’t have been more ready for the responsibility. Placing those understandable nerves aside, Gavrilova teamed superbly with Nick Kyrgios to claim the title for Australia Green, notching the first Australian Hopman Cup victory in 17 years, and only the second in its 28 year history.

“It’s the biggest event I’ve ever won and just representing Australia for the first time and winning this title straight away is amazing,” said the elated Gavrilova, as close friend Kyrgios smiled alongside her. “Since I was a little kid, I always watched Hopman Cup. It’s a dream come true.”

A dream, perhaps, but one that couldn’t have occurred without the spirit that quickly became a talking point of the new season.

Gavrilova produced one of the best shots of the event to save match point in Australia Green’s final round robin match against France and earn entry into the final, where she upset the higher-ranked Ukraine Elina Svitolina to strike a blow that would be so critical for Australia’s victory.

It was a feel good story that only grew at the Australian Open.

While a first round win over Lucie Hradecka was perhaps to be expected, an upset of No.6 seed Petra Kvitova, a two-time Wimbledon champion, elevated Gavrilova to another level.

“Coming into this match I was pretty confident that I could beat Petra,” reasoned Gavrilova, showing both her confidence and an instinctive knack for capitalising on her chances. “I knew that she didn’t have enough matches before. She didn’t even play anything before Oz Open. So I thought it was a good chance.”

A third round win against Kristina Mladenovic was even more inspiring, thanks to the 11-9 third set score-line and oodles of the now famous Dasha spirit. “I want to hug the whole stadium!” she laughed in her post-match interview.

It’s a love affair that’s clearly mutual, with Lleyton Hewitt among the many new admirers that Gavrilova gained during the successful Australian summer. “I like the way (Daria) goes about it,” Hewitt said. “I saw her in the gym a lot in the pre-season. She works extremely hard. I think she’s got a lot of good things ahead of her.”

The likeable Gavrilova was naturally delighted with the endorsement. “I love watching him,” she smiled, “I actually was told that I’m a female Lleyton Hewitt once by my friend.”

It’s hard to dispute the similarities, the passionate Gavrilova playing her best tennis under pressure and never shy to show her personality on court. “Yeah, I am very emotional,” she agreed. “I get frustrated with myself, and I guess I show it. Sometimes I shouldn’t be. When I’m happy, I guess I show it, as well.”

Fearlessness is another quality Gavrilova shares with the former world No.1. While it helped Hewitt claim Grand Slam titles and Davis Cup glory, it was perhaps most recognisable in the 21-year-old when she bravely relocated from Moscow to Melbourne as a teenager.

Few people understand such qualities better than fellow Australian pro Luke Saville, who Gavrilova met at the 2011 junior Davis and Fed Cup final. They famously became a couple and after spending time here in 2012, they soon plotted the move that would prove so impactful to Australian tennis.

Saville, who was courtside for many of his girlfriend’s matches in Melbourne, believes that Gavrilova’s big personality is infectious. “I think everyone’s sort of seen that she’s pretty fiery out there,” he said. “She wears her heart on her sleeve a little bit. I think that’s what the Aussie public is really liking about her. She’s leaving everything out there.”

Pointing to the competitive spirit that helped her through the hard-fought win over Mladenovic, which saw her progress to the fourth round in just her sixth Grand Slam campaign, Saville also noted Gavrilova’s impressive raw ability.

“She’s obviously got a lot of game. She can do a lot of things that a lot of the girls can’t do out there. She’s got some pretty good hands and feel (for the ball),” Saville said.

“That’s how her personality is off the court as well. She’s pretty fiery. She likes to be the one controlling the show and that’s how she plays her tennis as well. She’s not afraid of the big occasion either. She believes she belongs here and I think it’s showing.”

It’s evident, too, in the many elated fans who delighted in Gavrilova’s rise – and Dasha is the first to admit she thrives with the attention. “I shouldn’t say it but yes,” she laughed when asked if she’d read and watched the widespread media coverage about her Australian summer success. “I love it. And I love the kids coming up to me, asking for autographs and saying ‘oh you’re my favourite player now’. It’s quite cool.”

Amid that scrutiny, there’s also a responsibility as Gavrilova acknowledged after her fourth round loss to Carla Suarez Navarro, which was characterised by some overflowing emotion for which she later apologised. “It wasn’t great and I’m very disappointed with myself. I was being a little girl,” she admitted, vowing to learn from the experience.

It helps that the Melburnian has so many qualified supporters. While Nicole Pratt has been influential as her long-time coach, Gavrilova is now relying on Craig Tyzzer as her travelling advisor. There’s also critical advice from Jeff Solomon, a sports psychologist who helps her to channel emotions in the most positive way.

Another supporter, albeit in a loss formalised sense, is Sam Stosur, a practice partner ahead of the Australian Open. “It was great having her around. We did a lot of our pre-season together,” said Gavrilova. “Obviously she’s a legend to me. I have so much respect for her. In the beginning when I just first met her, I was very shy around her. But now I’m more relaxed … I could even call her my friend. Yeah, we get along very well.”

A friendship with Stosur and other equally-supportive Australian women made the wait to represent Australia in Fed Cup all the more disappointing for Gavrilova, the ITF ruling her ineligible to compete in the first round against the Slovak Republic. “(I was) really looking forward (to it),” she said. “But we’ll see what happens in April.”

Clearly, there’s plenty of time for such milestones yet – along with many indicators that bigger success are still to come. The US Open girls’ champion and world No.1 junior in 2011, Gavrilova was named WTA Newcomer of the Year in 2015 after wins over Maria Sharpova, Ana Ivanovic and Lucie Safarova helped her surge from outside the top 200 to world No.36.

Peaking at a career-high world No.32 after her inspired Australian run, Gavrilova is almost certainly guaranteed a seeding at her next Grand Slam event – not that it’s changing any of her expectations.

“I am happy about my results,” said the 21-year-old after her fourth round loss to Suarez Navarro. “After all, I lost against a top-10 player. She was very tough. I think still the whole tournament was great. It gives me a lot of confidence.”

Delivered with a smile, it was a casual statement that had a serious sentiment too. It’s the Gavrilova way to be lively, laconic and level-headed all at once. How very Aussie of our new star player. And how very lucky for Australian tennis that she’s chosen here to build on those qualities.

This article first appeared in Australian Tennis Magazine.

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