CHENNAI : February 2017. Rebecca Marino’s father received a diagnosis no patient wanted to hear. Cancer. It was terminal. “He was told he had a year-and-a-half to live,” she tells this daliy. “It was a life-altering moment. When you are faced with the mortality of someone so dear… it made me reflect on my life choices. Was there anything that when I was my father’s age, would I look back and say ‘I wish I had done this?'”
One of those life choices was her decision to retire from professional tennis as a 23-year-old in 2013 (she had already taken a mini-break). Both the diagnosis and the prognosis jolted her.”I would love my father to see this so that’s when I decided to come back. So it’s a very happy thing in a way, coming from a sad thing. Luckily my father was able to see me back in tennis.
Unfortunately he passed away in 2020 during the pandemic. But he saw me back in tennis, loving it, he was so supportive, he was so excited, it was like our passion… Something we shared so closely was tennis. He was a huge tennis fan. For him to see me playing, it brought him a lot of joy. I am glad I was able to give him that.”
When Marino first got into high-level tennis — she dabbled in a bit of badminton before turning professional in the former — she spread joy among Canadians and the wider tennis fraternity. While there was Milos Raonic on the men’s side, they finally had a women’s player capable of residing in the sport’s top table in the women’s section.
Her promising career continued on its upward trajectory for two years before she breached the top 40 in women’s rankings (ranked 38 in the week of July 11, 2011). However, 38 remains her best. By the beginning of 2012, she was No 64. By the time 2013 came around, she was No 420.
Among other things, she felt that pressure to reside at the top table. “I felt at the time there was a lot of pressure,” she says. “I wonder sometimes if I put that pressure on myself.” Retirement followed. “I had a lot of other things going on. I (did a degree in English literature) went to the University of British Columbia, I had a full-time job as a tennis coach, I was part of the rowing team at the University. I had a regular life, a regular routine.”
The decision to overturn her life wasn’t taken on a whim. She thought about it for a good six months before conveying it to the people closest to her. What helped make that final push was spending one week at a second rung event in Vancouver. “To stop everything and go back all in on my tennis… I wasn’t sure I would even succeed at it again. It was a big scary leap. August 2017 was when I decided to go to training. The thing that pushed me past the edge was an event in Vancouver. They asked me to be a hitting partner.
At that time, nobody knew I was thinking of coming back. They just asked me to come help with the tournament. I thought this is a good opportunity to see if I’m comfortable around tennis again, see my level. Whether I could hit with these girls still. How would I feel? By the end of the week I was like ‘I can do this’.
Those starting weeks back on the circuit (an ITF meet in Antalya in January 2018 was her first) showed that touch hadn’t deserted her — she won a hat-trick of events that lifted her to No 735 in the world. Bigger and more significant wins followed including four wins at the Australian Open (three wins in the qualifying rounds) in 2021. Slowly but steadily, she built her way back up the rankings before breaching the top-100 last month.
Her stated aim, now, is to remain in the top-100 at the end of the year. But she is putting no pressure on herself. “Next goal is probably to be top-100 at the end of the year,” she says. “I think it’s very achievable. I don’t want to put too much pressure, I also think sometimes it’s not fair for me to compare my career right now to my career before. I was so much younger, it came so much easier.”
Irrespective of whether she achieves that or not, she is ‘very proud’ of what she managed to do in this third innings of hers. The Chennai Open field is littered with stories of inspiration. Tatjana Maria, mother of two. Eugenie Bouchard, on the comeback trail after a big shoulder surgery. Nadia Podoroska, hoping to be an inspiration for Argentine girls. You can safely add Marino’s story to the collection.