Real Life

How tennis champ Erin Routliffe turned around her “worst year in her career”

After a tough year, sports star Erin Routliffe can’t believe she won a Grand Slam title
Kellie Blizard

Ever since she was little, Erin Routliffe dreamed of winning the US Open. But if you had asked her four years ago, while she was working at a tanning salon after having quit sports, she wouldn’t have believed that moment would come. In fact, just months ago, the Auckland-born athlete saw 2023 as her worst professional year.

“The whole year was so tough,” says Erin. “I was playing the best tennis I’ve ever played but losing so much more. Until September, it was one of the worst years of my career, then suddenly it’s the best. Tennis is crazy like that – your life can change in a week!”

Erin, 28, still struggles to describe the “surreal” September moment she and Canadian tennis player Gaby Dabrowski became women’s doubles champions at the US Open. Dropping to her knees, she felt “ecstatic” she had what every tennis player strives for – a Grand Slam title.

Having her family there, screaming and cheering so madly that commentators remarked on the energy from their corner, made the win even more special.

Doubles delight at the US Open with Gaby.

Erin’s Canadian parents, Catherine MacLennan and Robert Routliffe, were on a world sailing trip when her mum became pregnant. Upon the suggestion of Kiwis they met abroad, the two headed to Aotearoa for Erin’s birth. Four years and two more daughters later, they returned to Canada, where Erin enjoyed soccer, volleyball and rowing.

But it was tennis that stole her heart and she played her first tournament at just 10. “I enjoyed competing so much. Being in that nitty-gritty match environment’s so exhilarating.”

Earning a tennis scholarship, Erin studied public relations at the University of Alabama while playing tournaments over summer. Though she enjoyed student life, her desire to succeed stopped her from partying too hard.

“I knew there was a bigger goal and I had to take care of my body to be an athlete,” she tells. “There are sacrifices in sports, but that’s been instilled in me since I was young.”

As she got older, Erin was drawn to her Kiwi roots and eventually reached out to Tennis New Zealand about representing Aotearoa instead of Canada. Returning here for the first time since she was a kid, she instantly felt at home.

A star in the making.

Playing the ASB Classic in 2018 cemented her wish to represent NZ. She has since been based between Canada, the US and Godzone, where she works with Neil Carter, one of her three coaches.

It was Neil who pointed out Erin didn’t seem to be enjoying matches back in 2019.

“I wasn’t doing amazing and was really hard on myself,” she admits. “Being a perfectionist is a doubled-edged sword. It’s why I’ve had success but also gone through tough times. With that mental state, I wasn’t treating myself well enough to continue, so said, ‘I’m done. It’s too hard.'”

Moving to her family’s cottage near Toronto, Erin got a receptionist gig at a tanning salon and shut out the tennis world. However, months later, when her sister suggested she hit a few balls, she felt surprising enjoyment.

“I started feeling like I hadn’t given everything I could to tennis. I didn’t want 20 years of effort to end on a bad note.”

As a sports psychologist helped Erin out of her “rut”, she restarted training and returned to New Zealand for the ASB Classic. Then COVID hit.

“That was another mental hurdle. I was like, ‘I just got back!’ But taking a step away from the game was the best thing I could’ve done. It made me appreciate everything I have and what I could do.”

That potential shone through at the US Open for Erin and Gaby, who had only been playing together for three months. While competing in doubles has its challenges, Erin loves working to get the best out of each other and credits open communication for their success.

With sisters Tess (left) and Tara.

Happy to be back in New Zealand for the beaches, pies and lollies – and this year’s ASB Classic, where she made it to the doubles quarter-finals with fellow Kiwi Paige Hourigan – Erin says her sister Tess, who has dwarfism and won silver in swimming at the Paralympics in 2016, is a huge inspiration.

“Seeing her and other athletes with disabilities – from those who have no limbs to the blind – work so hard and be so happy to be competing puts you in your place if you’re complaining about anything.”

And just as Tess inspires her, Erin hopes being the first Kiwi woman to win a Grand Slam title in 44 years empowers others.

“I’m so grateful to fly the New Zealand flag for tennis. I hope seeing me be successful shows Kiwi girls they can achieve anything and makes them want to play. I’d love to make tennis more popular in New Zealand, so we have not just one Kiwi at the US Open, but five – that’d be amazing!”

The ASB Classic is on until 13 January. For tickets and more info, visit asbclassic.co.nz.

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