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How Rebecca Marino put depression and retirement behind her to make a winning return to tennis

In June 2011, Rebecca Marino was sitting on a bus in Birmingham heading for the city’s tennis centre – just another day in another city for another tournament thousands of miles from her Vancouver home.  

Marino did not know why she started to cry as she sat on that bus. She only knew that, once she started, she could not stop. 

Two years later, and a woman who had once been ranked in the world’s top 40 was forced to quit the sport that had been her life after being diagnosed with clinical depression, at the age of 22. 

Fast forward to 2018, and Marino is embarking on a comeback. Feeling like “a different person” and with her depression “pretty much gone”, Marino is learning to fall in love with tennis – and herself – once again, although the memories of her lowest ebb are difficult to dislodge.

“It was probably the worst I’ve ever felt in my entire life,” Marino says. “It was a really dark place. I had no confidence and felt tiny, which is funny because I’m 6ft 2in. I thought I would never touch a racket again.

“I felt so small and insignificant. I was crushed and empty, and it was as if I had a mask on the whole time. Like there was a hole punched through my chest. It was awful. I would not wish that feeling upon anyone.”

Marino’s decision to quit was nothing to do with her performances – she had intimidated even the great Venus Williamsat the 2010 US Open with her booming serve and thudding groundstrokes – but the unending travel and loneliness had become too much to bear, while savage social media abuse further eroded her sense of self-worth. 

She is not alone in such suffering. In January, Telegraph Sport revealed the extent of the previously unreported mental health struggles faced by tennis players, and the need for more openness.

Beyond the Baseline | Read Charlie Eccleshare’s three-part series on the unseen side of professional tennis

The loneliness, the pressure of performance-related income and the relentless of constant jet-lag-inducing travel were all cited as reasons for why tennis can take such a toll.

For Marino, talking candidly about her emotions and well-being has become second nature. In her time away from tennis, she started regularly seeing a psychologist – whom she still speaks to – and gained a much greater understanding of the difficulties she faced in “chapter one” of her career.

You’re one against one and constantly comparing yourself to all these other girls. You try and be friendly with them but they’re also your opponents so you can’t really know who your friends are

Rebecca Marino

“I didn’t fully comprehend what the lifestyle of a tennis player was until I was in it, and that was pretty overwhelming,” she explains.

“The fact that you’re one against one and constantly comparing yourself to all these other girls. You try and be friendly with them but they’re also your opponents so you can’t really know who your friends are. Even though I was surrounded by people I felt like I was alone. It was really isolating. You’re also constantly away from home so you never have a stable lifestyle.”

During her tennis sabbatical, Marino found that elusive stability by enrolling in an English literature degree at Vancouver’s prestigious University of British Columbia. “I got to find myself again, in a way,” she says. “Find what my interests were, find that I loved school. Find some friends outside of tennis.”

Initially Marino did not pick up a racket for a year after retiring. A gentle foray into the world of coaching made her realise she was better suited to bludgeoning forehands than advising on them, but it was a personal trauma which ultimately convinced her to give another chance to the sport whose lifestyle had once tormented her. 

“My dad, Joe, was diagnosed with prostate cancer last February, and it put a lot of things in perspective for me in terms of mortality,” she said. “It made me realise that life is short, and I should just go out and do things for me, and not really care about what anyone else thinks. Because life is short and ‘F it,’ basically.

“I’m still young enough to give it a go so how about I just try? If it doesn’t work that’s ok. I can at least say I’ve tried, even if I fail I’ll still go out with a different feeling from last time.”

Thankfully Joe has responded well to treatment, and Marino, still only 27, hopes he will see her play – and win – again. She reached the final of a low-level event in Osaka last week after starting her comeback in February by winning three straight tournaments in Turkey. By next week her ranking will be heading towards the top 400 and is expected to quickly move north. She has even rejoined Twitter and Instagram.

Still, Marino remains determined that he state of mind will not be determined by her results. Just as important as winning matches is ensuring that she remains healthy in mind as well as body.

“As a sportsperson you know you’re supposed to be tough and you don’t want to show cracks in your foundation,” she says. “You don’t want to let anyone in to see that – you’re an athlete and you have this game face on.

“Opening up and showing vulnerability – even for a regular person – is tough, let alone for athletes who are on a stage. But I think of it this way: we always take care of our physical health. If there’s an injury you rehabilitate, and to help close out matches we work on sports psychology. But what about psychology in terms of mental health?

“It should be another facet that’s like: ‘I’ve done my technical, my tactical prep, and what about my psychological?’ Me as a person, not just psychological on court. I think we’ll eventually get to that point but these discussions need to start happening.”

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Marino is happy to share her experiences with any other players who are struggling: “If someone comes to talk to me I am more than happy to be honest about everything I’ve been through. It’s sometimes not a comfortable conversation but if someone is coming to talk to me then if I can help them in any way then I’m more than happy to.”

As for herself, there is one lingering question: given Marino’s depth of despair last time around, is she fearful of it all unravelling again?

“Part of me is a little apprehensive that maybe I could go back to that but I know I have people around me,” she says defiantly.  

“I have my psychologist and all of my friends I can rely on. I have a great life I can go back to if this doesn’t work out. It’ll be fine. I just have to trust in myself and enjoy every single moment and not think about the things that scare me.”

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