It hasn’t been the easiest of seasons for Daria Gavrilova since she won Hopman Cup alongside Nick Kyrgios and made the fourth round at the Australian Open in January. Afterwards, the newly-minted Australian struggled mustering up the same kind of energy she felt in Perth and Melbourne and suffered a few tough losses during the North American hard court season and her Fed Cup debut. In Madrid, however, the 22-year-old is rebounding, getting her back to back wins and upsetting defending champion Petra Kvitova. René Denfeld caught up with the bundle of energy at the Caja Magica.
Daria Gavrilova might’ve expected to see a familiar face across the net when she took the court for her opening round at the Caja Magica — as she was drawn to face fellow firecracker Yulia Putintseva first up earlier this week. The two were long-time foes in juniors, but Gavrilova quickly had to adjust her game plan when Putintseva withdrew with an illness and she went up against lucky loser Heather Watson instead — a player whom she never faced.
“The first set was a long one,” Gavrilova grinned after getting her first round victory over Watson on Sunday, 7-5, 6-4.
“We both play very similar, pretty good movers, can’t really hit winners,” the Australian laughed, but corrected herself. “Like — we can hit winners but we can’t like hit winners within two balls. We played recently in Hopman Cup and it was a drama, so I kind of expected it to be over two hours no matter what.”
As expected by the 22-year-old, her matches were tough, as she faced two players in Watson and Elina Svitolina who don’t give her too much pace — maybe as a result, Gavrilova looked forward to her third round match against Petra Kvitova on Wednesday, knowing that the result would largely live and die by the big swings of the Czech lefty.
That it did: Gavrilova withstood 22 winners of the Czech’s racket, and managed to save six of seven break points faced — all in the second set — to record her second career win against Kvitova, 6-3, 6-4.
“There is nothing up to me in this match, [so] it’s pretty easy mentally,” she explained, post-match. “I was ready and you know, I don’t mind grinding it out and making the points long, so I guess I like that role. I played pretty well — I thought I served pretty good but I took my chances whenever I could. The match is really on her racket. When she plays well, there’s nothing I can do but whenever I had the chance to do something to hurt her I did it, so that’s why I won.”
Considering her fondness for the grind and longer rallies, Gavrilova’s results on clay don’t necessarily come as a surprise — but the Australian admitted that it took her some time to get used to the surface, and that it was hardly love at first slide.
“Last year [my preparation] was actually very different; after Miami I had a training block for four weeks,” Gavrilova recalled. “At the start of the first week, I felt so uncomfortable on clay like, ‘Oh my God, this is my worst surface — I can’t move on this thing,’ and then I got better every day. I did a lot of sliding and stuff like that and I think it is in my memory for this year. Last year, the training block helped a lot and I’m very confident and I think it actually is my best surface now.
“After Fed Cup [in Brisbane], I came to Italy just like last year — but just for five days instead of four weeks. It’s kind of in the middle of nowhere. There was just me and my fitness coach.”
After a strong run of results in Australia in January — in which she made the fourth round of the Australian Open for the first time — the weeks that followed didn’t come easy to Gavrilova. Her results in Dubai and Doha were a letdown after making the fourth round in Melbourne and the 22-year-old admitted that maybe she wasn’t able to find the reset button after an exciting Australian summer.
“I think when I went to the Middle East, I kind of wasn’t ready,” she said. “I was like ‘Aw, I’ve just done well and have to do it again.’ There was no one watching really, so…it was just so different.”
During her wins over Kvitova and Kristina Mladenovic in Melbourne, Gavrilova endeared herself to the Australian crowd, who duly responded to her emotional run by rooting and cheering for her loudly — but the adjustment of playing with a full stadium behind her to doing so with stands sparsely-filled caught Gavrilova a little off guard.
“Having the crowd behind me and then playing on an outside co–“, Gavrilova said about losses to Ana Ivanovic and Caroline Wozniacki in Dubai and Doha in which she won seven games combined, before catching herself, “–actually, I played on center court, but the atmosphere was just so different and I was…not ready. When it’s just me, myself and I on the court against whoever, sometimes I really have to push myself and dig deep. I do like people watching.”
“I played in America and then had tough losses there to [Zarina] Diyas and [Magdalena] Rybarikova. I put myself in a good position in both matches but didn’t close it out, but obviously that happens.”
While Gavrilova’s results started picking up in San Antonio and Charleston — where she won consecutive matches for the first time since the Australian Open — her first Fed Cup for Australia against the United States was a double-edged sword. While thrilled to finally put on the national colors after a long process with the ITF, Gavrilova fell to Madison Keys in singles as the Aussies dropped the tie, 4-0.
“The week was unbelievable — except for the weekend,” she said. “It wasn’t the result we all wanted, but overall, it was a great experience. I loved every second of it — for sure, it was obviously bit sad losing at home but it’s okay.”
In Madrid, however, things have picked up for Gavrilova, as she’s made her first quarterfinal above the WTA International level or higher since Eastbourne last June — and the conditions are working in her favor.
“I actually like [the altitude] and I like the balls so it’s good for me,” she said. “It’s clay, but I still get the speed of the ball and I can hit winners.”
In her next match, Gavrilova will face 19-year-old American qualifier Louisa Chirico, who received a walkover due to Victoria Azarenka’s withdrawal from the tournament.