Melbourne Park is a vast construction site when I catch up with Daria Gavrilova, as final preparations are made for one of Australia’s biggest sporting events. Tennis hopefuls have arrived from across the world to do battle in the Australian Open, but Australia’s No.2 ranked woman hasn’t had to travel far.
Born in Moscow, 22-year-old Daria has lived in Melbourne since 2012. In 2015, she and her parents, Alexey and Natalia, and younger brother, Stepan, became citizens in a low-key ceremony at the Australian embassy. “I was super nervous when I sat the citizenship test,” she says. “I prepared hard and even learnt the national anthem.”
Tennis first brought her to Australia at 15 and by 18 she was fixed on making Melbourne home.
“The lifestyle suited me here – the weather, Australia is a sporty country and it’s chilled. That’s very different to life in Russia,” she says.
Daria has also adopted some true blue Aussie tastes. Vegemite and avocado on toast are favourites. “I travel with a tube of Vegemite. A few tennis players joked that I must be eating Vegemite to get Australian citizenship but I like it, although I don’t go too thick,” she says.
“I have found it very easy to settle in Australia although I’m not sure about the culture where people say, ‘How ya going?’ but they don’t really care. You’re not expected to actually answer the question. In Russia, if you ask someone how they are going you will get a full-on answer. If you’re not going great, people will know.”
Daria has spent the morning on court and is now in the Tennis Australia cafe overlooking Garden Square. She’s swapped shorts and a T-shirt for a burnt-orange silk dress, Ray-Bans and discreet diamond and sapphire stud earrings. Jewellery, she admits, is a passion.
She began playing tennis at six, supported by her father, a mechanic, and her mother, an accountant. “But the lifestyle in Moscow was crazy – there’s too much traffic. If you have a practice session at 9am, you must leave home at 6am to be on time. I like to visit Moscow but I don’t get homesick,” she says.
When she moved to Australia, Daria was already a rising star. She won the Youth Olympics in Singapore and the US Open juniors in 2010. She is now coached by Nicole Pratt and the partnership is paying dividends with Daria ranked 25 in the world, and nipping at the heels of Sam Stosur to become Australia’s No.1.
“I think people expected me to break into the top 100 earlier because a lot of girls I played juniors with were winning matches and WTA tournaments,” she says.
“It was a little harder mentally for me.”
In 2012, Daria had a breakthrough year, qualifying for the Australian Open and facing a childhood idol at the Dubai Open. “I played my first round and all I could think was, ‘Oh my god, if I win I play against Serena Williams next’. I won the first set and then my concentration went because I was thinking of Serena. My dad then said, ‘I know what you’re thinking but concentrate on this match and what you need to do now’,” she says.
“The night I played Serena, I arrived early to get a feel of the court. The girls in the locker room were joking – ‘You’re playing Serena? You have no chance’. Since then, whenever I play someone big, I never arrive at court too early and talk to too many people. When Serena came on court, the crowd went crazy and I got butterflies. It was one of those unreal moments.”
Last year, Daria reached round four of the Australian Open and the finals of the Kremlin Cup. She caused an upset at the Hong Kong Open a few months ago when she beat world No.1 Angelique Kerber in straight sets.
“But my dream is to beat Maria Sharapova at Rod Laver Arena. That would be pretty awesome,” she says.
“Sharapova was a big deal in Russia when I was growing up. She won Wimbledon at 14 and when I was eight I thought, ‘I will beat that’. But then you realise how hard it is.”
Daria has no pre-match rituals but she’s a detailed note-taker and is often seen revising her tactics on paper before a game. She has done the same at this week’s Australian Open.
“The crowd makes the Australian Open special. I played as an Australian for the first time in 2015 and couldn’t believe how much support I got,” she says.
That support in Australia also comes from her partner of six years, Luke Saville, another Melbourne tennis pro. Luke won the junior Wimbledon title in 2011 and is 157th in the world rankings. The couple met at a tournament in Mexico in 2010.
“When we first met, we talked on Facebook like little kids. I was his first girlfriend and his first love and it was the same for me. It’s a cute story,” Daria says.
“We play different tournaments so travel at different times. We don’t see each other every day so maybe that is why our relationship has worked.”
With her world ranking at an all-time high, Daria is confident about 2017. “I always have goals – the ultimate is to win a grand slam,” she says. “The Australian Open would be nice, but I’ll take any.”
The Australian Open is on at Melbourne Park until January 29
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