When people ask how long I’ve played professional tennis, I always pause and say, “It’s complicated.”
What makes my professional tennis timeline complicated is that I’ve come out of retirement after five years away from the sport. Just call me the comeback kid, I guess.
From a young age I was always drawn to sports, and tennis was where I gravitated as I hit my teens. After a lot of hard work and sacrifice, by the age of 20, I found myself ranked No.38 in the world. I always dreamed of being a professional athlete, and now I was literally living my dream. But to be honest, I think everyone — including myself — was surprised by my quick ascent up the rankings. By the time I was 22, I found myself completely burnt out and struggling with my mental health. I had lost my passion for the sport I love. For my own health and happiness, I decided to take a break from tennis. So in 2013, I retired.
I have no regrets over this decision. Stepping away from professional tennis allowed me to lay roots in my hometown of Vancouver, and reconnect with friends and family. I took the opportunity to enroll in university, and I began coaching tennis. It was during my time at the University of British Columbia that I joined the varsity rowing team. Being a full-time student athlete, and also working 20 hour weeks coaching tennis, made for a very busy schedule. But the variety that came with being a rower, a student and a tennis coach expanded my interests and helped me form a clearer sense of identity.
Joining the rowing team at UBC helped maintain my competitive spirit during my time away from professional tennis. Funny enough, I resisted rowing during my first two years of undergrad because I knew what the practices entailed — waking up before dawn, working out until your lungs and legs burned, and if you live in Vancouver, training in cold, bone-chilling rain. I knew this because my family actually has a deep history of rowing. My uncle George Hungerford and his partner, Roger Jackson, won the coxless pair rowing gold at the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo. Hungerford and Jackson were also members of the UBC rowing team, and their pictures are plastered all over the boathouse. No pressure, right?
I did not reach the same heights in rowing as Hungerford and Jackson, but I have always drawn on their story for strength and inspiration. As a child I remember seeing my uncle’s gold medal on display at his home. I was always in awe of his achievements, and aspired to compete on the world stage like he did. To this day, I can honestly say Uncle George is still my sports hero; not just because he won Olympic gold for Canada, but because of how he did it.
George and Roger were called the “Golden Rejects” because they were such long shots to win. Hungerford and Jackson were both alternates who began training as a pair just weeks before the Olympic Games. On top of that, George was struggling with a weakened immune system due to mononucleosis. Because of their illness and short preparation, nobody thought the pair had any chance of winning. Canadian officials and journalists skipped their race altogether. But with single-minded determination, George and Roger pulled off the huge upset, winning Canada’s first and only gold medal of the games. Their amazing underdog story is proof that even under unlikely circumstances, dreams can come true if you are willing to push your mental and physical limits. There are so many things I find inspiring about Uncle George’s Olympic story, but mostly it was his grit and determination to prove the doubters wrong. Taking the path less travelled means shutting out negative noise and doubling down on a positive focus.
When I decided to return to tennis in 2018, I knew it would not be easy. Five years away from anything is bound to bring some rust, but I was determined to shake it off. I knew I was in good company, considering the way Uncle George and Roger shook off their adversity. Going into my first tournaments, I was both excited and nervous. It had been so long since I had competed, and I wasn’t sure what lay ahead. My anxiety proved unfounded. I went on a 20 match win streak, winning my first three tournaments in a row. In my first year back in the sport, I ended up winning five singles titles, climbing over 700 ranking spots to be in the top 200 in the world. To put that in perspective, in just 11 months I went from completely unranked, having to qualify in the lowest level professional tournaments, to competing in the qualifying of the Australian Open.
Peace in the journey
There were inevitable speed bumps along the way — injuries, moments of self-doubt, and the loneliness that comes with being away from home for months at a time. But with inner strength and the support of my friends and family, I have learned to appreciate my effort regardless of my results.
Time, maturity and a chance to reflect on life have given me insight into my competitive spirit and drive to succeed. I’m back for good, not only to resolve unfinished business and make up for lost time, but to enjoy the process, and achieve my goals. I feel lucky to have a second chance in my tennis career.
Sport will always be a major part of my life. Where it takes me in the future is a bit of a mystery. What I do know is that like my Uncle George, I’m going to pave my own path, give my comeback my best shot, and hopefully surprise everyone along the way. After all, mental toughness and determination are in the genes, and my family is in the business of proving the doubters wrong.
(Top large photo by Christopher Katsarov/The Canadian Press; middle large photo by Christophe Karaba/EPA; bottom large photo by Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)
The Rebecca Marino edition
Q: The best book you've ever read?
A: 'The Power of One' by Bryce Courtenay.
Q: Must-listen podcast?
A: 'Getting Curious with Jonathan Van Ness' and 'Mueller, She Wrote.'
Q: Best advice you ever received?
A: You must always have purpose, meaning, and direction to achieve your goals in life.
Q: If your life was a movie, what would it be called?
A: 'Bouncing Back' (intentional tennis pun)
Q: What word or phrase do you over use?
Q: What is a skill you wish you had?
A: I wish I could play guitar.
Q: What's something no one would guess about you?
A: I’m right handed, but can only play pool left handed.
Q: What scares you?
A: Spiders and needles.
Q: If you could have the ultimate influential dinner party, who are the 6 people you'd invite?
A: Neil deGrasse Tyson, Hypatia (of Alexandria), David Attenborough, William Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde, and the Dalai Lama.
Q: What makes you cry, every time?
A: Watching the movie 'The Fox and The Hound.'
Q: What's the next goal you want to accomplish?
A: Qualify for main draw of a Major/Grand Slam event.