Winter came early for Daria Gavrilova. Years of digging out from under a mountainous junior pedigree had put the young Russian-born Australian in pole position by the fall of 2013.
A torn ACL in Taiwan left her longing for Australia’s summer sun.
But first- spring.
A junior career comes with no guarantees. Success proves little past potential. But Gavrilova, with her wealth of positive energy, lived in the present. She reached the final in her major debut at the French Open. Youth Olympic Gold and Grand Slam glory came soon after.
“I slept so bad during the night,” the former junior No. 1 remarked in her US Open post-victory press conference. “I woke up like 10 times, and I was thinking — I think I played my match in my dreams like 10 times!”
The senior tour seemed a foregone conclusion. But after two years of toiling through the wilderness of 25 and 50K’s, the youngster who couldn’t lose was starting to forget how to win.
“In the beginning, I was winning a lot. And then I started losing and it was a bit like ‘oh, why is that happening?'” Gavrilova told the Sydney Morning Herald. “I kind of kept on going, playing tournaments, and it wasn’t the right thing to do.”
She needed a change, something new coach and former World No. 35 Nicole Pratt provided.
“She was a great junior, but there were certain things in her game that were limiting her from taking that next step,” Pratt said, alluding to the slightly different skill sets required for juniors and seniors.
Before, Gavrilova could run for days and rely on her return. Against the serve of a Serena Williams, everything had to be hit harder, better, faster, and stronger.
Still, the results were starting to come — fittingly at the height of the Australian summer. She beat future Wimbledon finalist Eugenie Bouchard to qualify for her first-ever Grand Slam main draw, where she reached the second round. Rising into the Top 150 and settling into her new Aussie identity conspired to put her in good stead for the next season. But autumn soon came, and along with it the knee injury that would require reconstructive surgery.
The diminutive Gavrilova dusted off the snow to return six months later, even more determined to stand tall in the big leagues. Her natural intensity was suddenly accented by an almost bionic ferocity. Playing a first round qualifying match at last year’s US Open, the Aussie refused to be undone by the onset of cramps. Stumbling to the service line, she sliced and spun under-armed serves, silencing her opponent with one serious spectacle.
Buoyed by a sprint through the Australian Open Wildcard Play-offs, the 21-year-old has brought that same relentless spirit into the 2015 season. She began the year with a thrilling three-setter against Angelique Kerber, one that left the young Aussie punchy and up well past 3AM. She continued to push the big names in Indian Wells, taking a set from eventual champion, Simona Halep.
But just as spring came into bloom, so too did Gavrilova’s tennis. Earning a third bite of the apple in Miami, she faced an idol in Maria Sharapova.
“I have been dreaming about beating Maria since I was probably 12 when I saw her win Wimbledon, when she beat Serena.
“I was like, ‘Oh, I really want to play her and beat her.’ I was probably visualizing beating her since I was 12.”
On the biggest stage of her young career, the Aussie did not disappoint. Mixing scrambling defense with increased offense off her forehand, Gavrilova leaned in and played clever tennis to topple the World No. 2 in straight sets.
“I played [Kerber] twice this year, and I played [Halep] last week. I was pretty close, I thought, all this time,” she said. “I just thought, ‘Okay, you can do it. You’re probably at this level right now.'”
Consolidating the upset en route to the fourth round, Gavrilova inched deeper into the Top 100 as the Tour turned to clay. Transitioning surfaces can be difficult for even the most versatile of veterans, but the forgotten Rising Star used the red dirt of Rome as yet another opportunity to shine.
Nabbing two minor upsets to qualify, Gavrilova out-gutted Belinda Bencic and World No. 7 Ana Ivanovic in a pair of grueling affairs. Against another red-hot riser in Timea Bacsinszky, she stood her ground and blanked the Swiss in the second set tiebreak. Benefiting from the withdrawal of Williams, she held off another bout of cramps — and fellow qualifier Christina McHale — to achieve the biggest result of her career.
Waiting for her in the semifinals was Sharapova, a full circle encounter for the Aussie. On the two-time French Open champion’s favorite surface, Gavrilova played the Russian close, barely missing out on the opening set and leading by a break in the second.
Though she didn’t walk away with the title, the Aussie certainly endeared herself to the the tennis world. A far cry from the sullen cartoon who shares her name, Gavrilova’s bouncy gait and expressive on-court persona will probably polarize as the wins pile up. For now, the WTA’s resident “GIF with legs” brings entertainment by the boatload, and is an absolute breath of fresh air.
Winter came early for Daria Gavrilova, but spring is here again. If the Aussie gets her way, it may be here to stay.
Hand: Right (two-handed backhand)
ATP Titles: None (4 ITF)
Career High Rank: No. 45 (05/18/2015)
Best Slam Result: 2R (Australian Open, 2013)
Biggest Win: Maria Sharapova (No. 2, Miami Open)