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It’s Tuesday evening in Cancun, five days before the start of the WTA Finals. The Mexican resort capital was announced as host of the tour's season-ending championship in early September, and doubles partners Erin Routliffe and Gabriela Dabrowski landed there a few hours ago. They're excited to start practicing.

Around the same time as that announcement, Routliffe and Dabrowski won the US Open—in only their fourth tournament together as doubles partners. Perhaps even more remarkable was that it was first time in women’s tennis history that two players won a Grand Slam doubles title without either having ever cracked the Top 100 in singles. Dabrowski has reached No. 164, Routliffe 582.

None of that mattered in Flushing Meadows.

“The number one thing is the way we communicate with each other,” says Routliffe. “We have an open dialogue on everything.”

According to Routliffe’s coach, Bruce Lipka, “Each person must give the other unquestioned loyalty. It can’t be anything other than the next point mentality.”

A most unlikely set of circumstances saw Routliffe and Dabrowski paired at the US Open. They quickly flourished.

A most unlikely set of circumstances saw Routliffe and Dabrowski paired at the US Open. They quickly flourished.

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Each has arrived at this stage of her career in very different ways.

“I feel like I’ve been working since I was nine,” says the 31-year-old Dabrowski. “For me, tennis became super intense very quickly. My parents did everything they could for my tennis. I’m incredibly grateful for that.”

A top junior in her native Canada, recruited by such schools as Baylor, Dabrowski instead turned pro. Her career highlights include a pair of mixed doubles majors, taking the title at Roland Garros with Rohan Bopanna in 2017, and a year later winning the Australian Open alongside Mate Pavic.

Routliffe, 28, was born in New Zealand during a sailing trip taken by her parents. Several years later, the family returned to their native Canada, where she was raised (though Routliffe currently represents New Zealand). Routliffe went on to graduate from the University of Alabama in 2017 with a degree in public relations, along the way twice winning the NCAA doubles title with Maya Jansen.

By the summer of 2019, though, Routliffe felt finished with tennis, to the point where she quit completely and took a job at a tanning salon near her home in Toronto. But as Routliffe worked the desk and cleaned one bed after another, she soon felt the urge to compete again.

“I wanted to give more of myself,” she says.

By early 2020, Routliffe returned to tennis.

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This summer, following a frustrating loss in the opening round of the Wimbledon doubles, Routliffe pondered her possibilities. As her coach recalls, “I told her, ‘when you’re ready, the partner will show up.’”

Hearing that Dabrowski ‘s partnership with Luisa Stefani had ended after Roland Garros, Routliffe sent a text message to Dabrowski, asking if she’d like to pair up for the summer hard-court season. There followed a 90-minute conversation, Dabrowski asking a series of rigorous questions that covered everything from doubles philosophy to practice routines to off-season rituals and coaching.

“I’m pretty much a type A personality,” says Dabrowski (as she says this, Routliffe laughs in the background). “Erin is more of a free spirit.”

But the most important factor was that the two were in complete agreement on how they should best play doubles: attack the net as a team. Given that both are fine volleyers and can cover that part of the court extremely well, this was a natural fit; Dabrowski is 5’10”, Routliffe four inches taller.

“Our net games are really good,” says Dabrowski. “So when one of us comes up with a quality serve or return, we can keep the points short or clinical. You can’t say that for other teams.”

Sometimes, each player was eager to take over.

Sometimes, each player was eager to take over.

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This volley-heavy approach is a contrast to the heavy emphasis on groundstrokes often seen in contemporary doubles, a style that at heart is a version of singles on a doubles court.

“So we worked a lot on having a greater radius of skills at the net,” says Lipka.

This included everything from attacking second-serve returns more aggressively, sharpening angle volleys, and building more dynamic overheads. Dabrowski’s coach, Dan Kiernan, also thoroughly agreed on the need to continually apply pressure by moving forward.

“Within ten seconds, Dan and I connected,” says Lipka. “Like me, he’s obsessed with studying film.”

The number one thing is the way we communicate with each other. We have an open dialogue on everything. Erin Routliffe

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In their first two tournaments, Montreal and Cincinnati, Dabrowski and Routliffe lost in the second round. Just prior to the US Open, in Cleveland, they won two matches, including an upset victory over the best team of recent years, Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova. But a tough loss in the semis—“a bad performance” in Dabrowski’s words—was jarring.

New York proved a textbook case of an arduous process generating a pleasing outcome. The two practiced extensively, on off-days twice, for as long as 90 minutes each time. Such is life for doubles players that court access is often scattered, involving frequent hops from one court to another, as well as shared space with other competitors.

“You’re always moving and grooving,” says Lipka.

All that collaboration, dialogue and practice paid off in a big way during a highly emotional quarterfinal epic versus the all-lefty duo of Taylor Townsend and 2021 US Open singles finalist Leylah Fernandez. Over the course of nearly three hours, a packed Louis Armstrong Stadium crowd was thoroughly cheering for their opponents.

“That was one of the hardest things that each of us have endured on the tennis court,” says Routliffe. “The whole time, I felt Gaby’s support. Even if we had lost that match, I had this feeling we were doing it together.”

Down 2-7 in the third set tiebreaker, Dabrowski and Routliffe won eight of the next nine points.

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The final marked the first time Routliffe had ever competed inside Arthur Ashe Stadium.

“Playing on Ashe is what you work for your entire life,” she says. “I was tricking my mind into thinking I wasn’t playing a Slam final.”

While Dabrowski had played mixed finals, her only prior women’s doubles Slam final had come at Wimbledon in 2019, where she and Xu Yifan had lost in straight sets to Barbora Strycova and Su-Wei Hsieh.

“I regretted how I handled that,” says Dabrowski. “This one I handled better.”

Their opponents were 2020 US Open champions Vera Zvonareva and Laura Siegemund, a tricky duo that combined consistency with tactical guile. After winning the first set in a tiebreaker 11-9, Dabrowski and Routliffe reached their third championship point at 3-5 in the second. As had been the case all tournament, the start-up team played aggressively, charging the net to extract an error.

Just after the victory, Dabrowski said, “I can retire happy at some point now. That’s what it means to me.” Said Routliffe, “I’m just a little bit in shock.”

Neither Dabrowski or Routliffe could quite believe that their major debut ended with a major victory.

Neither Dabrowski or Routliffe could quite believe that their major debut ended with a major victory.

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Two weeks after the US Open, Routliffe and Dabrowski reached the finals in Guadalajara. Suddenly, they were in contention for the season-ending championships.

But then came consecutive first-round losses in Tokyo and Beijing. Off the two went to Zhengzhou. As the results of other teams shook out, Dabrowski and Routliffe learned that a title run would get them to Cancun. They won three matches to reach the finals.

Says Routliffe, “I was more nervous there than during the US Open.”

Versus Shuko Aoyoma and Ena Shibahara, a team ranked inside the Top 10, Dabrowski and Routliffe won 6-2, 6-4.

“That week revealed a lot about their character,” says Lipka.

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“In a way, I feel like my career is just starting,” Routliffe says about this run. “To be able to say I’m a Grand Slam champion is kind of crazy.”

Dabrowski will be playing her fifth WTA Finals, but she’s never gone past the group stage.

Then again, she never played a major with Routliffe before the US Open, either.

“This one is completely different because of the team we have around us,” Dabrowski says, “because of the work we’ve put in together. Whatever happens, we’re going to get through it together.”