Daria Gavrilova, the Russian-born tennis player who represents Australia, pauses for thought.
‘I’ve never really said anything controversial,’ she smiles during our hour-long video call from her Melbourne home – somewhere she’s become used to with a lengthy injury lay-off preceding the coronavirus crisis.
The ‘hassle’ of being an outspoken athlete on social media doesn’t appeal but she’s far from guarded.
There’s a genuine openness and warmth – something that’s becoming increasingly rare in the oftentimes fraught media-sportsperson relationship – to the former top-20 player who longs to, in her own words, not only be a ‘really good tennis player but a really good person’.
But that doesn’t mean she’s afraid to go against the grain.
Take her heritage, for example.
She says: ‘I think with individual sports and coming from a Russian background it’s kind of like, “Everyone is your rival. How can you even be friends with them?”
‘But I was kind of always nice to everyone anyway. I was always friendly with everyone and always respected my opponents, but I’ve definitely made a lot friends on the tennis circuit.’
The recently retired five-time Grand Slam champion Maria Sharapova – who once described the locker room as her ‘least favourite place in the world’ – had a business-like approach to tennis and little time for those she perceived as her rivals.
‘It’s definitely not just her but she openly said in interviews she’s not here to make friends,’ Gavrilova adds.
‘Tennis at the end of the day is our job but you won’t see people in the office not being friends. But she’s always been respectful so… I think maybe we have different understandings of what a friend is maybe.
‘I definitely go out to dinners with some girls and obviously we’re playing the same tournament and can potentially meet each other in the next few rounds. But I don’t know, who cares?
‘I think, honestly, from the WTA Tour if you take the top-100 there are only 10% of girls who are really isolating themselves.
‘Everyone else has banter in the locker room – maybe not the same as the boys!’ She laughs before adding: ‘I wish it was the same as the boys.’
Her male counterparts’ ability to ‘talk s**t about each other’ has always amused Gavrilova – who wished me luck editing out her expletives as we parted ways before jovially adding with a giggle, ‘You don’t have to. I don’t care. F**k you!’
The cross-locker room relationship is what has caused our paths to cross. Gavrilova is among the players to have featured on the new online tennis show ‘Tennis United’, which gives behind-the-scenes access to players in a programme hosted by Canada’s Vasek Pospisil and USA’s Bethanie Mattek-Sands – a regular doubles partner of Britain’s Jamie Murray.
‘I think it’s really cool, it’s cool for – I really don’t like the word fans. I was trying to avoid the word fans: I was going to say for “fans to engage” but I feel like it’s a bit arrogant to say fans. But I guess it is what it is,’ Gavrilova, who is currently ranked 250 in the world after an injury lay-off stretching back to the US Open, says.
‘I guess some players are only ever doing interviews about their tennis, their performance or press conferences after the matches and everyone kind of has the same freaking answers!’
The notion of uniting the two tours is especially prevalent at this moment in time. Roger Federer re-sparked a decades-old conversation – started by Billie Jean King and co. in the 70s – about merging the two tours.
So far, in the public arena anyway, there has been a lot of support for the idea. Nick Kyrgios remains the most high-profile figure to speak out against it.
‘Well, I don’t really talk to him, no. Only if I see him at tournaments. I don’t know why he said that,’ Gavrilova says. ‘
‘But also, when you have your opinion, you really have to articulate yourself well. You can’t just tweet something and then not think people are going to want to hear from you more or they might even argue with you.
‘A lot of us sometimes just tweet something and think “yeah, that’s it.” But it’s never it. You’re going to hear about it in the press conferences and stuff like that. Honestly sometimes I do want to say something but I really can’t be bothered with dealing with all of it.
‘At the end of the day, I think a lot of players are just scared to share their opinion but also, to be fair, a lot of players are just actually not even interested in the business side on all these debates and are just happy with playing tennis.
One area of disagreement has been whether female tennis players should expect parity with their male counterparts if the tours merge.
WTA chief Steve Simon warned against that expectation, claiming it is a ‘long-term goal’ – a suggestion that didn’t sit well with Britain’s Johanna Konta, who said it would ‘have to be a merger of equals because that’s what we are’.
‘I don’t like to get involved in it because I actually understand two sides of the story,’ Gavrilova says. ‘Maybe men do attract more viewers and more fans.
‘So oh well, yeah, tennis is a business and we’re entertainers so if they attract more than they should earn more, which I think they still do because of all the other tournaments.
‘But then we work as hard as men. So we do deserve equal pay. The good thing is it’s not for me to decide.
‘The business side of it, I don’t know the numbers. I think the men do attract more at the moment. Maybe forever they have been. We can’t do anything about it but I think it’s up to the sponsors. The sponsors might just be interested in the men’s tournaments.
‘But at the end of the day, the Grand Slams is equal pay, which is pretty cool. That’s where I’m really grateful for it. And I’m grateful for all the women like Billie Jean King fighting so hard for equal pay. It’s hard, this debate can go on forever.’
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