Tennis upstart Marino reflects on her breakout season

When Rebecca Marino matched Venus Williams serve for serve on centre court at the US Open in September, the tennis world was introduced to Canada’s next top talent.

Marino took the seven-time Grand Slam champion to a tiebreaker in the first set, and though she eventually lost that second-round match, the experience marked one of the Vancouver native’s favourite moments of the 2010 season.

“It was a lot of fun, it was my first main draw of a Grand Slam,” Marino said. “Being able to qualify in the first place was a lot of fun and to win a round was a bonus.

“Playing on Arthur Ashe [Stadium] is probably one of my career highlights so far, and it’s something I look forward to doing again.”

After winning her first-round match at the Tevlin Challenger in Toronto – her second-last tournament of the year – Marino reflected on a season that saw her ranking rise from 182 to 109, and her profile elevate from unknown to dangerous threat.

“It’s been a pretty fast year,” she said. “I’ve been all over the place, and I’m really happy with how’s it’s been.

“I’ve stayed healthy relatively for the whole year, and I feel like I’m playing really well.”

Canada’s top-ranked female player followed up her US Open experience with an upset victory over world No. 14 Marion Bartoli at the Bell Challenge in Quebec City. She then reeled off three straight Challenger titles, and is sitting on a 16-match win streak.

But it was the 19-year-old’s first appearance on the biggest stage in Flushing Meadows, N.Y., that really put her on the map.

“It was great, it was kind of an eye opener,” she said. “I don’t think a lot of people had seen me play before. I think it was good for tennis in Canada, just to kind of boost the awareness of it, and a lot of people got to see me play, so that was cool.”

Marino, a lanky six-foot-one player with a big serve and booming forehand, said that she’ll do anything to help grow the sport in Canada. If she continues to improve at her present fast rate, she’ll do just that.

Currently sitting at No. 109, with the chance for that ranking to rise with good results in Toronto and at next week’s Challenger in Phoenix, Marino is in a good position to gain direct entry into the 2011 Australian Open set for January.

The top 108-ranked players are inserted into the main draw, with that number varying slightly because of injuries.

And while she said playing in Melbourne would just be a bonus at this point, she admits it would be a great experience. It also would be a stepping stone to her goal of playing more WTA Tour events next year.

With the off-season just around the corner, she’ll have less than two months to work on her game and make that happen.

“I’m going to be working on my fitness a lot more, that’s something that can always be improved on,” she said. “And just generally improving everything – serve, return, forehand, backhand, maybe coming up to net a little bit more.

“And physical fitness for sure, just because I’m a little bit taller, and people tend to pick on that a bit.”