For Luisa Stefani, the WTA250 Chennai Open has ended her one-year injury layoff in the best possible way.
The Brazilian is back playing doubles with her good Canadian friend Gabriela ‘Gabi’ Dabrowski.
The Stefani-Dabrowski pair, top seeds in Chennai, were having a fantastic run during the US Open swing in 2021 during which they reached the finals in San Jose and Cincinnati, and clinched the title in Montreal. At Flushing Meadows, the in-form duo reached the semifinals where facing the all-American pair of Caty McNally and Coco Gauff, Stefani got a right knee injury at 6-6 in the opening set.
The injury was so terrible that she had to be carried off the court in a wheelchair. It not only ended her chances of winning a maiden Grand Slam title but also put the pair out of the race for the year-end WTA Finals, where the top eight pairs of the season compete.
“It’s really special to be playing together again. It’s been a long year away from tennis, but to come back and play with Gaby, I couldn’t ask for more. It’s really nice to be here, and have a chance to play together again on my first tournament back,” the 25-year-old Brazilian told Sportstar after a one-hour practice session on Friday.
Stefani explained how she felt about staying away from tennis for so long. She said, “It sucked, at first, because we were really close to what we wanted to do. And not only close to winning a Slam, but also getting to the WTA finals.
“It was the beginning of a partnership. We’d been friends for a while, but like a partnership, we had been doing well for a few weeks to play three finals before the US Open that year. And so, at first, it was hard to swallow. It was hard for me but also hard for Gabi. I put myself in her shoes too.
“I’ve watched Zverev’s injury (during the 2022 French Open semifinal against Nadal) recently too. It was so shocking to watch. I feel bad for everybody who had to see me get hurt at that time too. But after that, it’s been a blessing in some ways. It was a great year off the court. Obviously, I missed playing and competing. But I tried to enjoy my time at home as much as I could. I moved to Brazil. I got to spend a lot of time with family, friends and do other things that I wasn’t doing before.”
Before the injury, Stefani was training under Indian coach Sanjay Singh at the Saddlebrook Academy in the US.
The Indian Connection
While both Dabrowski and Stefani are visiting India for the first time, they both have a connection with the tricolour nation.
Dabrowski won her maiden Grand Slam title in mixed doubles with India’s top-ranked men’s doubles player Rohan Bopanna at the 2017 French Open.
“It was the first Grand Slam for both of us. That was pretty special. At that time, it was a beautiful moment for both of us. Although Rohan’s a little bit older. I think winning a slam is just one of those things that’s on your resume forever. And there’s just a special moment that you cherish with that person forever, no matter who they are. It was nice to win on clay. It’s not my favourite surface. We both overcame some obstacles, and it was great to pull it off together,” said Dabrowski.
Stefani, along with Laura Pigossi, became the first Brazilian tennis players to win an Olympic medal in Tokyo in 2021 when they saved four match points in their 4-6, 6-4, [11-9] victory over Russians Veronika Kudermetova and Elena Vesnina in the bronze medal play-off.
Stefani’s coach at that time was Sanjay Singh, who was also Leander Paes’ coach when the Indian won the bronze in singles at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics by beating Fernando Meligeni, a Brazilian.
“Olympics was definitely the coolest, craziest experience of my life. It changed my life in a lot of ways. It was a dream come true to play there and then, to come out with a bronze after being the last ones (to get) in. With Laura, who was a great friend of mine,” said Stefani.
She added, “Every moment in Tokyo, we appreciated it and lived to the fullest. We felt a lot of love from Brazil, and I think Brazilian tennis, especially women’s tennis in Brazil, took off after that. We have a lot of players who are doing well now. I won’t say it completely was because of the Olympics, but I’m sure it played a role in it, in terms of motivating them and making them believe that they could reach certain highs as well.”
With another WTA250 event going on in Portoroz, Slovenia, why did Dabrowski and Stefani choose Chennai? The Canadian responded, “ Normally, I try to stay away from places that are incredibly hot and humid because it’s very hard for me. However, we haven’t had a WTA in India in a very long time. That was pretty exciting, and one of my best friends, Emily Webley-Smith, played doubles in this tournament as well. She was coming here, and I promised myself that the first time I go to India would be with her. And so we knew that we were going to come here. It also made sense, with Tokyo the following week, to play another tournament in the Asia region back to back.”
Stefani said, “I had been working with Sanjay for a few years. I heard a lot about India and Indian culture. It’s really special to actually live in, firsthand and experience the culture, the food, the people with my own eyes and I kind of enjoyed this week.”
The duo also appreciated the Indian crowd who came to watch their quarterfinal win against the local pair of Karman Kaur Thandi and Rutuja Bhosale.
Dabrowski said, “It was really great that they came out to support the Indian players. They would have been the last ones left in the draw too. So, of course, that matters even more for the local community.
“Everyone was really complimentary after the match. They were telling us we had great qualities, and we played a great game. Even though they might have been cheering for our opponents during the match, afterwards, they appreciated the good tennis that we showed.”
Dabrowski eyes WTA Finals
With Luisa out for a year, Dabrowski had to look for a new partner before 2022, and she eventually paired up with Mexican Giuliana Olmos. The duo is currently second in the race for this year’s WTA Finals, only behind the Czech pair of Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova, who won every Major in 2022 except the French Open where they could not participate as Krejcikova tested positive for COVID-19.
Dabrowski and Olmos lost to the Czechs in the US Open quarterfinals. “Sometimes, they really make you feel dumb, especially Barbora because of the way that she plays. She holds her shot, almost looks to see what you’re doing and then chooses the shot that’s hardest for you to hit. You’re constantly adapting within the point. I give them a lot of respect. And I give them a lot of credit for the results that they’ve achieved not just this year, but their entire careers in both singles and doubles,” said the 30-year-old Canadian, currently ranked 11th in doubles.
On Federer and Serena’s retirements
It is an emotional time for the tennis world with Roger Federer and Serena Williams, two of the greatest players in the history of the sport, bidding farewell in the same month.
Dabrowski pointed out the difference in the manner in which both said goodbye. She said, “One was very public. There was a ton of attention on it for several weeks leading into the potential retirement, which is a little bit of a different vibe.
“And then, Roger, just one day you wake up and it’s just done. It was very quiet. It’s just interesting to see the difference between the two. But tennis will very much miss both of those incredible athletes and competitors. It’s too bad but in life, all good things must come to an end. Hopefully, they find a lot of happiness and fulfilment in the next chapters of their lives.
Stefani made it clear that Roger was not just her favourite among the ‘Big Three.’
“Roger’s my favourite among everybody. I love Roger, and I grew up watching him. It’s amazing and so unique, the way he plays, the way he acts, the way he carries himself on the court. When he walks into a place, it’s almost as if you feel something changing the look. ‘Oh, Rogers here.’ He’s done so much for tennis not only for me but for millions of people.
“I miss him since he stopped playing as much. But now even more. I hope he still plays some exhibitions and sticks around because he’s important. And Serena, we were at the US Open, so I got to watch maybe her farewell match in New York. You could see the crowd’s energy and how much she’s appreciated in tennis or in general.”
Dabrowski and Stefani have paired up only for this week’s tournament in Chennai. The Canadian will be back with Olmos, to try and qualify for the WTA Finals, while Stefani will play with Ena Shibahara during next week’s WTA500 event in Tokyo.
The Brazilian liked to play the guitar during her time away from tennis, but this past week, she has had fun holding a tennis racket and playing with Dabrowski again. “I had a good time (playing the guitar), but I’m happy to get back to tennis,” she said.