June 18, 2024

Open Court

MORE TENNIS THAN YOU'LL EVER NEED

To the US Open quarterfinals for Dabrowski and Routliffe

FLUSHING MEADOWS, NY – Leylah Fernandez won’t be the only Canadian woman in the doubles quarterfinals at this US Open.

There will be two more – okay, one and three-quarters more – as Gabriela Dabrowski and Erin Routliffe joined them, after getting a walkover from Barbora Strycova and Marketa Vondrousova in the third round on Monday.

Unfortunately, Fernandez and Taylor Townsend will meet Dabrowski and Routliffe. So only one team can make the semis. On the positive side (if you’re not on the losing side, that is), there will be Canadian representation in the semis.

They’ll play Tuesday, in Louis Armstrong Stadium.

Fourth tournament for “Dabliffe”

Dabrowski and Routliffe teamed up by happenstance, really. Sort of like in a relationship where two people who know each other both happen to be single – and looking – at the same time.

In the little echo chamber that is women’s doubles, when set teams suddenly no longer are playing together, people assume they’ve broken up.

So when Routliffe saw the reunited team of Dabrowski and Stefani were playing with other partners, she took note.

At the same time, her own reunion with good friend Alexa Guarachi was – just like Dabrowski and Stefani – not sweeter the second time around.

“Obviously, (Guarachi) is one of my best friends, and we are both, I think, good tennis players. There was just something off and the results weren’t really coming for whatever reason. Which was tough,” Routliffe told Open Court. “But we did decide together. It was a mutual understanding before Wimbledon that we were going to look for other partners.”

From a career high of No. 29 a year ago when she and Jessica Pegula won the doubles at the Citi Open in D.C., Routliffe’s ranking dipped to No. 60 after she didn’t defend those points. For a WTA doubles specialist, that’s a tough area of the rankings in which to make a decent living.

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FInding someone new

But finding a new partner mid-season is a big challenge, something both have experienced before. But after Routliffe texted Dabrowski, they talked. “We just decided that we kind of had the same outlook and goals. I was excited – and I’m still excited,” Routliffe said.

They know each other pretty well, even though Routliffe – born in New Zealand, raised in Caledon, Ont. and a veteran of the Tennis Canada national training program in Montreal – is three years younger and came through the juniors well after Dabrowski did.

A decade ago, Canadian Erin Routliffe was part of Tennis Canada’s national program; here she is at Wimbledon, where she and her Russian partner were defeated by Belinda Bencic and Ana Konjuh.

“Obviously, being Canadian, I’ve looked up to Gaby for years. I knew her well, I would say. We were, like, acquaintances and both really good friends with (fellow Canadian) Carol Zhao. I just texted her, “I would love to play with you. I don’t know what your plans are. I’m looking for a long-term partner because I’m not really into the whole ‘Let’s set for a month and then see how it goes’ thing.”

Finding a doubles partner can be an instant fit, or it can be a lot of work. Or, often, it just doesn’t work at all – any of you who play league tennis know how this goes.

In this case, Routliffe had long played the deuce side, and Dabrowski the ad side. So at least it wasn’t a situation where someone had to move. That was a good start.

The Matchy-Matchy

If the old (highly ungrammatical) tennis adage “Look good, play good” carries any weight for this new pair, they’ve got that covered.

They’ve come out in a couple of different colours, beautifully matchy-matchy, thanks to Dabrowski’s clothing sponsor, Jgame.

Routliffe was not, as they say, currently attached to a clothing company. She tried on the outfits, and loved them.

The company’s owner, Jackie Meretsky, is originally from Toronto, and educated in Montreal at McGill University. So it’s all very serendipitous.

A second round win, in the “hot pink” Jgame skirts

The “Cana-Kiwi”

Routliffe was born in New Zealand, almost by happenstance as her Canadian parents were travelling the world. She returned when she was about four and grew up in Caledon, Ont.

But she moved to Montreal as a teenager, spending years at the national training centre under Tennis Canada’s wing.

(Routliffe actually still lives in Montreal, sharing an apartment with her sister Tess – an Olympic silvermedalist in Paralympic swimming at the Rio Games).

Opting to go the college route – especially a decade ago – was not a recipe for continued support from the federation. Routliffe starred at the University of Alabama, a two-time NCAA doubles champion with best friend Maya Jansen. But the path coming out of college to carve out a pro career wasn’t nearly as smooth as her junior days were.

And so she opted to represent New Zealand. It gave her the opportunity to play Fed Cup (now Billie Jean King Cup). It allowed for some support even if that federation is a pauper compared to Tennis Canada. And it also gave her wild-card opportunities at tournaments held there, especially the season-opening WTA event in January.

But other than the three-letter designation or flag next to her name on the scoreboard, Routliffe is as Canadian as they come.

A second-round win in “Southhampton Mint Green”

Debut in Montreal

And so, this All-Canadian duo made its debut at the National Bank Open in Montreal.

They beat the veteran duo of Karolina Pliskova and Donna Vekic in a squeaker, before going down in the match tiebreak to Latisha Chan and Yang Zhaoxuan.

In Cincinnati, they beat the tough, experienced Japanese team, Shuko Aoyama and Ena Shibahara before losing in the match tiebreak to another solid team, Miyu Kato and Aldila Sutjiadi

In Cleveland, a WTA 250 tournament the week before the US Open, they upset the No. 1s, Krejcikova and Siniakova before losing to Kato and Sutjiadi again, this time 5-7, 7-6 (5), 10-7 in the match tiebreak.

Their respective rankings helped them squeeze into the US Open as the No. 16 seeds, which helped avoid a daunting first round.

They made it through a pair of three-setters. And in the third round, rather than facing Krejcikova and Siniakova, they were to face another pair of Czechs who had beaten them in the second round – Strycova and Vondrousova.

Except a shoulder injury to Vondrousova, who is into the quarterfinals in singles, gave them a pass to this quarterfinal clash with “Team Tay-Lah”.

Fernandez and Townsend have been the crowd favorite pretty much in every match they play. So Dabrowski and Routliffe will be the underdogs in that sense, even though the loyalties of any Canadians in the crowd might be divided.

“It’s actually really nice to have the Canadian fans cheering for us. Whether they know that I’m Canadian or not, they’re still cheering for us, which I really like,” said Routliffe.

Unfortunately, there’s no going back on the choice to represent New Zealand and come back home – the way they’ve started, they could have been a formidable pair for next year’s Summer Olympics.

The two have committed to play with each other for the rest of the year – San Diego, Guadalajara and events in Asia to be determined.

Routliffe’s first US Open appearance came all the way back in 2015, when she and her partner qualfied through the USTA’s public-parks wild-card challenge.
The year Leylah Fernandez made the singles final, doubles partner Erin Routliffe played no small role in keeping things fun and relaxed on doubles court throughout the fortnight.

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