Gabriel Diallo remembers when he began to miss more school to practise tennis and compete in tournaments aged 10. His parents sat him down to explain why he was in a different situation than his friends and classmates.
“They asked me how I felt about it. I thought about it, and I didn't see it as a sacrifice, because I really enjoyed it,” Diallo told ATPTour.com. “I enjoyed practising and I enjoyed playing.”
From a young age, Diallo dreamt of becoming a professional tennis player. “I always wanted to win Slams. Every kid goes through that phase,” he said.
“I remember I was trying to play like him and imitate his sliding and just moving and just not missing the ball,” Diallo recalled. “Me and my friends at the time, we were trying to recreate that match, actually.”
Although Diallo has not yet reached that level, he has ascended quickly. The Canadian, whose father is from Guinea and mother is from Ukraine, played college tennis at the University of Kentucky before turning professional at the end of 2022. Last August, he won an ATP Challenger Tour title in Granby, Canada, before reaching another final at that level in Fairfield in October.
This week last year, Diallo was No. 679 in the Pepperstone ATP Rankings. Now he is No. 141 and continuing to push forward. On Tuesday, the Canadian will try to earn his first ATP Tour main draw win when he plays former World No. 5 Kevin Anderson in the first round of the Infosys Hall of Fame Open.
“It's a privilege and it's a reward for the hard work that me and my team have put in,” Diallo said. “I think it's a great opportunity to see where my level is at. A guy like him has so much experience and is one of the best players in the world.”
It is not often opponents of Anderson’s come close to the South African in the height department, but both men stand 6’8”.
“It's a guy that obviously I looked up to because I was always told that I was going to have his size, kind of his body type [being] tall, but can still move and can still play,” Diallo said. “I got everyone. I got Kevin Anderson, I got [Marin] Cilic, I got Milos [Raonic]. Even when I was like 5'10" at 15, people knew that I was going to be tall.”
By 17, Diallo grew to 6’3”. Each year from then on he grew gradually before his growth was complete, according to doctors. Now the Canadian is a powerful presence trying to exert his will on opponents at the top of the sport.
“There's so many ways to play tennis, there's guys that feel comfortable moving side to side and just trying to counter attack. There are guys that thrive playing like this. And there are guys that are the complete opposite like me,” Diallo said. “I play my best and I have my most chances when I take my game to my opponent, when I try to disturb as much as I can. Obviously, I'm not trying to give him rhythm. And it's high risk, but it's also high reward. So it feels good. I think that's where I feel my best and when I play my best.”
Although Diallo has surged more than 500 places in the Pepperstone ATP Rankings in the past 12 months, he understands that continuing at this pace will not be easy.
“The climb is not always linear. It's not always going upwards, there's going to be moments where you're going to be a little bit more steady, there's going to be moments where it's going to go down,” Diallo said. “Obviously last summer and last fall, everything happened really fast and things changed for me. But it's not the reality of our sport. It's extremely rare. It's in rare cases that you just shoot [upwards] nonstop.”
One player who climbed rapidly to the very top of the sport is Felix Auger-Aliassime, another Canadian whose ascent was “really inspiring” to Diallo. Auger-Aliassime’s father, Sam Aliassime, is a former coach of Diallo’s. What did the 21-year-old learn from the father of the Top 15 star?
“I'd say the same as my parents, discipline and hard work. Keeping your head down, no matter the situation,” Diallo said. “When the outcome is unsure, just try your hardest. And respect. It doesn't really differ from what my parents taught me, but I'd say that this is the main thing that was coming up.”
Off the court, Diallo is like many 21-year-olds. He loves movies and TV shows as well as spending time with his friends and girlfriend. The Canadian also enjoys the beach and swimming as well as eating. His favourites include pizza, a good burger and a nice steak. Diallo will also work remotely towards completing a Bachelor’s Degree in finance beginning next semester. He has just three classes left.
On the court, Diallo has many of the goals you would expect: cracking the world’s Top 100 and playing in the main draw at the majors. But his biggest desire is more philosophical.
“I'd say my dream is really to fulfill my full potential, because obviously, people around me believe that I have a big game and that I can climb up the rankings. But it starts with me,” Diallo said. “I also believe that I have the potential. So I just want to maximise my game and wherever that takes me, I'll be able to sleep at night, and I'll be extremely happy and proud of myself.”