Sebov's lengthy struggles pave way to berth in first Grand Slam

MELBOURNE, Australia — It's been a long, solitary road for Katherine Sebov of Woodbridge, Ont., who has been toiling in anonymity at the lower levels of tennis for years, trying to break through.

On Friday in Melbourne, in the qualifying round for the Australian Open, her perseverance finally paid off.

Sebov, who turned 24 on Jan. 5 and came in at a career-high No. 191 in the WTA Tour rankings, qualified for the main draw of a Grand Slam tournament for the first time in her career after defeating No. 21 seed Simona Waltert of Switzerland 6-4, 6-3 in the final round of qualifying.

On Monday, she will face No. 4 seed Caroline Garcia of France in the first round of the big show.

“I've watched her a lot this past year. And actually, we hit together when I was 14, at the Rogers Cup. We played points. She was up, like, 5-4. So I was handling it pretty well,” Sebov said of Garcia.

“I'm definitely very excited for the match. I have a game plan, and I think I have a good chance to give her a bad day.”

Sebov was born in 1999, the same year as her childhood friend Denis Shapovalov (both have Ukrainian mothers) and just a year before Bianca Andreescu and Felix Auger-Aliassime.

Those three have already risen to the top levels of the game, earning millions in prize money and endorsements despite still being so young.

For Sebov and her mother Oksana Petrovska, it’s been a different story.

It’s a story of grinding it out in smaller tournaments, in cheaper hotels, for far less prize money — not nearly enough to make ends meet. Just the two of them: player, and coach/mother, against the world.

In the nine-plus years since she played her first professional event in Toronto late in 2013, Sebov has earned less than $200,000 in prize money.

Unlike her compatriots, she doesn’t make up for that with sponsorship. Sebov buys most of her tennis and training clothes from a big American online tennis website.

There are a couple of tennis clubs near her Toronto-area home where Tennis Canada has arranged for players to be able to book courts free of charge. But beyond that, they’re on their own.

“I think everybody has their own path. People say, ‘Oh, you took so long, you struggled for so long. What’s changed?’ It's what people say, it's not what I actually believe,” Sebov said.

“I think that this is the road that I needed to take. And the reason why it took me longer than others is that my game was there, but physically I wasn't there.”

Another was the COVID outbreak, during which it was impossible to train most of the time. And there were no lower-level tournaments in Canada for a long period of time. And when players did leave Canada to compete elsewhere, they had to do a 14-day quarantine when they returned home.

In a very real sense, the pandemic cost her — and many others — a couple of years.

Sebov was a top-25 junior when she was a teenager; during a time just before Shapovalov and Auger-Aliassime broke through in 2016, she was basically the only high-level prospect out of Canada playing at the junior Grand Slam level.

But it’s taken a long time and Tennis Canada generally isn’t a big fan of players who have a parent as a coach.

And while there certainly were efforts to help her, notably in her junior days, it didn’t really work out. In the end Sebov and Petrovska became a solo act.

“It’s definitely challenging at times, but we make it work. I think we're a great team; she knows my game better than anyone and always will. And she'll always have my best interests in mind,” Sebov said. “I trust her completely.”

Sebov said that if she were in a position where, financially, she could afford a travelling coach, she would do it for one reason: to let her mother step down and live her life.

“My mom and I, we know what I need to improve in my game, to make the next step. I think there's more chances of somebody disrupting that than to actually help,” Sebov said.

That’s not top of mind at the moment, though. With her Grand Slam debut, Sebov is guaranteed just shy of $100,000 (CAD), even if Garcia defeats her.

It’s a great way to start the season. That’s nearly half of what she has earned in her entire professional career. And it allows Sebov to set up her schedule — perhaps for the first time — without having to overthink and parse every expense.

Along the way, Sebov has been working toward a university degree online, with the WTA Tour collaboration with Indiana University East that covers half the tuition. She’s beginning her second year, majoring in business administration with a minor in psychology.

So if the breakthrough is coming late, for Sebov it’s coming right on time.

“I think it's better to develop as a person before you shoot up. So I took my time to develop as a person, as a player, as an athlete. And I think — I know — that I'm better off than having had a quick rise, and then maybe leaving the game early because of an injury, or just mentally not being able to process all of this.

“There are a lot of pressures.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 14, 2023.

Stephanie Myles, The Canadian Press