In June, during her first appearance at Wimbledon, Rebecca Marino, Canada’s top ranked female player, almost missed the tournament’s gala dinner. An hour before it began, as she was getting ready to hit the gym, she suddenly realized that as a top 50 player she needed to be there, and would be fined if she missed it. The 20-year-old Vancouverite tore through her suitcase, shook out a $10 dress from H&M, jumped in the shower, then into a cab to London’s Intercontinental Hotel. She made it, looking stunning, if a bit wrinkled, and walked the red carpet alongside players decked out in Alexander McQueen.
This time a year ago, few outside the tight-knit Canadian tennis world even knew her name. That changed in a heartbeat last September, at the U.S. Open in Flushing Meadows, N.Y. Marino, then 19, competing in just her second World Tennis Association tour event, came close to knocking off Venus Williams. The Vancouver teen routinely overpowered the two-time U.S. Open champion, then ranked No. 4 in the world, matching Williams’s supersonic boom, hit for hit, with a serve hitting 193 km/h—Venus can hit 195 km/h—and mesmerizing the stunned colour analysts, who’d prepped for a blowout. “I guess I know what it’s like playing myself,” Williams said afterwards—high praise from the female game’s best server.
That steamy summer day at Arthur Ashe Stadium, Marino went from tennis no-name to the game’s next big thing. It also gave the reserved young player a needed confidence boost. “It helped me realize I was good enough to crack the top echelon—that I can actually play with these girls,” she told Maclean’s. “After that, I clicked.”
And how. Two weeks later, Marino beat French superstar Marion Bartoli, her first win against a world top 10, and then won 18 straight matches and three consecutive U.S. tournaments in a four-week period. “You’re welcome,” Jim Curley, U.S. Tennis executive, wrote Tennis Canada CEO Michael Downey in a text message after Marino’s third straight title; the U.S.Tennis Association funded the tournaments, Downey explains, but a Canadian walked home with the purse. Marino has earned more than US$177,000 in 2011. And in less than a year, she’s climbed from No. 187 in the world to No. 41.
But Marino isn’t a typical prodigy. She didn’t pick up the game until she was 10; and at 15, when most rising stars are training full-time at tennis academies, Marino was still living with her parents in Vancouver, driving to run-down clubs across the Lower Mainland after school with her mom, Catherine, and changing into her tennis kit in the back seat.
As a baby, Marino, who was born in Toronto, had painful, juvenile arthritis. Between frequent visits to the physiotherapist and Sick Kids Hospital for steroid injections, Catherine spent hours with her in the pool where, weightless, Marino was able to move freely, without pain. Before she turned two, the family moved to Vancouver, to be closer to Catherine’s family for support. At five, after Marino’s arthritis had gone into remission, Catherine signed her up for badminton. Before long, a tennis coach convinced her to switch racquets.
In the early days, she and her dad, Joe, a former Mount Allison University varsity football and rugby player who runs a construction firm in Vancouver, entered doubles events together, mostly facing off against his pals. Marino emulated her dad’s big serve. But she quickly outgrew his game and, at 14, won Vancouver’s premier amateur tennis tournament, the Stanley Park Open, becoming the tournament’s youngest champion in 75 years. When she won it again the following July, her parents thought: “Okay, we’d better find a bigger pond,” says Catherine.
With a U.S. scholarship in mind, Joe and Catherine entered Rebecca in tournaments south of the border, to allow her to acquire a U.S. ranking and, perhaps, catch the eye of a college scout. They needn’t have worried. Within months, Marino was tennis’s No. 1 female recruit in North America. “We thought, ‘Now we’re really behind the eight ball,’ ” says Catherine. Shortly after joining the International Tennis Federation’s junior circuit, the long, lean, hard-hitting six-footer won the Canadian Junior Open in Repentigny, Que. At 17, heralded as a powerful, raw talent, Marino moved to Davos, Switzerland, on her own, to train with a top coach.
She returned to North America to finish high school, but then the fiercely intelligent young athlete faced an even tougher choice. Georgia Tech, where she hoped to study architecture, was offering a full scholarship; at the same time, the pro tour beckoned. “Ultimately,” says Marino, “I thought, I can always go back to university, but how long will I be able to pursue tennis professionally?” So, 18 months ago, Marino moved to Montreal to train at the National Tennis Centre. There, she and 12 of Canada’s top tennis talents, including Milos Raonic, the big-serving, Thornhill, Ont.-raised phenom, practised six hours a day under the watchful eyes of five coaches.
Marino is essentially the female Raonic. Both are 20, tall, and late bloomers (Raonic, who is six foot five, didn’t start playing tennis until he was nine); and both turned down U.S. college scholarships, then took the tennis world by storm last year, hurtling up the rankings, laying waste to their opponents with games built around powerful serves. Marino’s kick serve, rare in the women’s game, puts ferocious spin on the ball. It’s deadly.
Both Raonic—now No. 29 in the world, up from No. 217 a year ago—and Marino rely on rituals to keep them grounded. Raonic, the more superstitious of the two, favours pre-game steaks and red Calvin Klein underwear. Marino sticks to a more demure routine. Two hours before a match, she’ll hit lightly to warm up before a light lunch of chicken and pasta; then she’ll do a round of dynamic stretching, like butt kicks and high knees.
In 10 months, Marino has gone from tennis obscurity to the red carpet at Wimbledon, surprising even herself. “If someone had told me I’d be where I am at this time last year, I probably wouldn’t have believed them,” she says. A competitive fire drives Marino’s continuous self-improvement. Right now, her focus is on fitness. “Being taller,” she says, “players try to move me around—it’s something they pick on.” Sprints and footwork drills help condition her fast-twitch muscle fibres—key to the explosive speed needed to back up her serve. “As quickly as I went up,” says Marino, “I can go down again. I’m not in a fantasy land.”