Emotions in check: Daria Gavrilova celebrates a point in her win over Kristina Mladenovic. Picture: Getty Images Photo: Zak KaczmarekAbout five weeks before Christmas, sports psychologist Jeff Bond took a call from Nicole Pratt, Tennis Australia’s head of women’s tennis. Pratt’s individual protege for several years had been the much-improved Daria Gavrilova, a young player she described to Bond as talented, with all the shots, and already some big results, but lacking consistency from “a mental/emotional stance”.
She had beaten the likes of Maria Sharapova, Ana Ivanovic and Lucie Safarova at tour level, only to fizzle under pressure at the grand slams. Pratt has admitted that Russian-born Gavrilova had been known on Tour as “just all over the place and somewhat crazy at times”, and while a ranking rise from 233 to a top-40 hit in one season was heady stuff for the former junior star, there was still considerable work to be done on where her head was.
“There’s a fine balance between desperately wanting to win and keeping control, so sometimes that gets the better of her,” says Bond, who for the past two months has done regular work with Gavrilova, and whose most famous tennis client was another feisty competitor named Pat Cash.
“She’s got that tenacity and that fierce resolve to play the best she can and win, but the beaut thing now compared to when we first started is she knows now when her thinking is not where it should be. I can see it on her face when she’s on the court. She knows what she needs to do; just sometimes in a situation that’s a bit overwhelming.”
An appetite for the contest is clearly not lacking, however, as Gavrilova proved in the epic 6-4, 4-6, 11-9 defeat of 28th-seed Kristina Mladenovic she described as “the best win of my whole career”. Two nights earlier, the woman who now calls Middle Park home toppled dual Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova on Rod Laver Arena, thus becoming the first Australian to beat a top-10 seed at Melbourne Park since Alicia Molik in 2006.
And so, on Friday, Nick Kyrgios and his antics were relegated to the secondary channel, Seven Two, as the 166-centimetre dynamo bounced around the court, chased down every ball, shrieked and emoted, cracked racquets and backhands down the line, and then beamed during the on-court interview that she wanted to “hug the whole stadium”. By then, the feeling was pretty mutual.
It has been quite the ride for the new national darling known as “Dasha”, just two months after becoming an Australian citizen. She is now threatening Sam Stosur for national No.1 status, even as the commentators insist on reminding any viewers who have not already been beaten over the head with her oft-repeated immigrant backstory that she is “Australian Daria Gavrilova”. And just when you thought patriotic nail polish and all those photos with the flag might have been enough of a hint.
Yet the fact that her profile has increased exponentially is also giving Bond something to work with as Gavrilova prepares to play Spanish 10th seed Carla Suarez Navarro in what appears to be quite a manageable match-up as well as the extension of the new grand slam territory that is the fourth round.
“It’s a concern for me that everybody will want a piece of the action now, and I went through the same thing years ago when I worked with Pat Cash,” says Bond. “I said ‘when you’re successful, everybody will want to know you, everybody will want to have a comment about what you should and shouldn’t be doing, your life won’t be the same, you’ll be public property as such’.
“And Daria’s going to find the same thing to some extent; she’s already starting to find that, I think. At the moment, it’s exciting for her and she kind of soaks it up, and likes it, but at the end of the day it will wear thin, I think. She’s a fresh face in the media spotlight at the moment, and I think you’ve got to be really careful with that.”
Gavrilova’s travelling coach, Craig Tyzzer, believes the benefits of the continuing emphasis on the mental side of her game will be even more apparent later in the year, he and Pratt having already adjusted their approach by realising they were trying “to change things that were probably not going to change”. Everyone has settled in, settled down a little, as a result.
Personally, she is very well-liked. “Really nice kid,” says Tyzzer. “What you see is what you get. She doesn’t change. She gets excited about things, she loves what she does. She’s good value, and I think the public has just seen a bit more of her and are now getting to know what she’s like and what sort of person she is.”
As a player, top 10 or top 20 is her coaches’ goal for 2016, even if her game and weapons are modestly sized, comparatively. “Pound for pound, her serving is really good for her size and her speed worries a lot of the players, she’s super-quick around the court, gets a lot of balls back, makes them play extra balls,” says Tyzzer. “So we don’t see her size as a deterrent or a determinant of how she’s going to play.”
The experienced Melbourne-based coach is used to working with heart-on-sleeve types, too, having counted among his former clients the shirt-ripping and slightly bonkers Andrew Ilie. Any similarities there, we ask? “Chalk and cheese really, in a lot of ways,” Tyzzer says. “A lot of emotion on the court, both of them, but Dasha’s an easy fix compared to what Andrew was like.”
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