NEW YORK—Back in 2011, when Rebecca Marino was just 20, everything seemed to come so easily to her on a tennis court. The Canadian reached the third round at the French Open that year—soon after, she rose to No. 38 in the world rankings.
It was not quite so easy off the court. At the US Open last Friday, for the first time since then, Marino played in the third round of a Grand Slam tournament, marking the high point so far of her comeback from a five-year absence from the tour brought about by anxiety and what she calls “burnout.”
“If you talked to me during my retirement, I don’t know if I believed that I’d be back here. So that’s why I’m really proud of myself, just overcoming a lot of things and making it this far—and hopefully, even further,” Marino said. “The word I keep kind of coming back to is ‘gratitude.’ I feel very, very fortunate that I’m able to return to the sport again and that I’ve had success. Every moment I get on court, I’m grateful.”
The pressures of being a young athlete growing up while traveling the world, trying to break through, seeking significant results, can take a toll. Naomi Osaka, a four-time major champion, is just one prominent example of a tennis player who has discussed her struggles with mental health in recent years. Ash Barty left the tour for two-and-a-half years in her teens, came back to play and win three Grand Slam titles, then retired this year while ranked No. 1 at age 25.
“You can’t stop kids doing what they need to do, especially with these young players. You have to let them live their lives,” Marino’s mother, Catherine, said in a phone interview from her home in Vancouver, where she has been watching Rebecca’s matches from the same spot in the kitchen she tracked the French Open in 2011.
“Every point, I’m there with her, definitely. When she won (against Daria Snigur in the second round), I had to pinch myself. I couldn’t believe it,” said Mom, who has been sending Marino photos of the two family dogs, goldendoodles Jasper and Stanley, this week. “I am so proud of her…. We’ve been on a bit of a journey.”
Things became overwhelming for Marino in 2012, and she tried a six-month break to see if that would help. When she played next, things were not appreciably better. So she stopped for good. Or so she thought.
“I was just burnt out completely—not just physical, but mental and emotional burnout. I was done. I was just cooked,” said Marino, who is 31. “Now that I’m more mature and looking back, I wish I could help my younger self to sort of go through all of that. But it also made me who I am today.”
Out of the professional game, Marino tried new things. She studied English literature at the University of British Columbia. She took up rowing (her uncle, George Hungerford, was a gold medalist in the sport at the 1964 Olympics). She gave tennis lessons.
Going back to her former life was not in the picture, she says, until 2017, when her father was diagnosed with prostate cancer. (He passed away in 2020, his life was celebrated during Billie Jean King Cup matches on the two-year anniversary of his death this April).
“It made me reflect on a lot of things,” said Marino, who found speaking to a therapist helped and encouraged others to do the same. “And something that I kept coming back to was my tennis and how that was sort of unresolved.”
She was invited to be a hitting partner at the Vancouver Open and that did the trick: She thought, for the first time, she was ready to return.
“I wanted to see if I was comfortable around a tournament environment and then I’d make my decision,” she recalled. “So by the end of the week, I was like, ‘I’ve got to do it.’ … I was in a fantastic place mentally. So two weeks before school started for my last year of university, I dropped my classes, quit my job, stopped the rowing team and went all in.”
By early 2018, Marino was competing. In 2021, she played her first Grand Slam event in eight years. This July, she climbed back into the Women’s Tennis Association’s top 100 for the first time in 10 years (she is No. 106 this week).
Now came Marino’s chance to get to the fourth round of a major for the first time in her career: She faced 36th-ranked Zhang Shuai of China on Court 5 last Friday.
“She’s gone through more than anyone can imagine and done it on her own. To be in such a dark place, and be able to walk out of this and still love to play tennis and get to the situation she is now, is just amazing,” said Austin Nunn, who has known Marino for about a decade and began representing her this year. “And I think she appreciates it a bit more, because she understands where she came from.” AP
Image credits: AP