While Milos Raonic has been vaulting toward tennis stardom, another Canadian, born just 11 days before Raonic, has been plotting a similar course with a familiar calling card: a booming serve.
Just hours before Raonic battled Andy Roddick in Memphis last month in his second ATP final in as many weeks, Rebecca Marino of Vancouver was slugging away in her first-ever WTA final. And while she lost to Slovakian Magdalena Rybarikova, retiring in tears with a strained abdomen, Marino has reason to believe there will be many more finals to come.
The six-foot Canadian signalled her arrival last summer at the U.S. Open, pushing Venus Williams into a first-set tiebreaker in the second round. Then the 20-year-old challenged French Open champ Francesca Schiavone in a marathon Round 2 loss at the Australian Open, in which she unleashed a serve at 193 kilometres an hour, the third-fastest serve of the year on the women's tour.
"I thought she had a great serve, really big," Venus Williams recalls. "She showed big effort and is extremely competitive."
Now ranked No. 61 in the world, Marino earned a spot in the main draw in the WTA tournament at Indian Wells, Calif., on Tuesday after toppling both German Tatjana Malek and Czech Petra Cetkovska in qualifiers. A premier stop on the tour, Marino has another chance to tangle with the world's best.
"She's very close. Her game needs work, but she's special. She's got raw talent," said Marino's coach, Simon Larose. "Her serve frustrates opponents. You see what Milos is doing to opponents? Rebecca can do that, too."
Natural-swinging Marino learned that serve as a kid, hacking around with her hard-serving dad, Joe. That is, when she wasn't breaking B.C. swimming records, playing basketball or volleyball or honing her hand-eye co-ordination with badminton.
She picked up tennis at 10 and started competing against girls from across British Columbia and Oregon. At 14, Marino beat players of all ages and became the youngest champion in the history of Vancouver's Stanley Park Open, one of the biggest amateur tennis tournaments in North America.
"Rebecca had it in her mind that she wanted to be every bit as good as the older girls," said Catherine Marino, her mother. "People were like, 'How could a kid that young win this thing?'"
Marino began travelling about 30 kilometres to Coquitlam, B.C., every day after school to train with elite players, and a little junior competitive success started to follow, as did scholarship offers from numerous U.S. colleges.
"Coaches were calling at all hours of the day, the mailbox was constantly filled with packages from schools," Catherine Marino said. "They told us she was the No. 1 female tennis recruit of the year."
With offers in hand from a very long list of schools, including Harvard, Stanford, and Berkeley, Marino opted to sign with Georgia Tech. She planned to study architecture there, something in which she had grown an interest while riding around in the family truck to housing sites with her parents, the owners of a general contracting company. But as the school year neared, she changed her mind.
"I just had a gut feeling that I could make it in pro tennis," said Marino, who was then ranked in the 600s and beating a few players in the 100s and making tournament finals on the lower-tier ITF tour. "I could have had all my school paid for while playing college tennis - who would turn that down? But I just wanted to try going pro for one year first."
Marino went to train on her own with a coach in Switzerland. Speaking no German and having no family, friends or teammates there, tough-minded Marino dug in to conditioning in the Swiss Alps. While she learned a lot in her half year there, it was lonely and her tournament results weren't dramatically better. She opted in early 2009 to leave and train with other Canadians at the National Training Centre in Montreal.
"I'm really comfortable in Montreal, and I've become a big believer in the team environment," said Marino, who is still training there.
Marino's year-end WTA ranking in 2008 was No. 340, and by the end of 2009, she had improved to No. 182. Early in 2010, she fell in qualifying in her first seven WTA events before turning things around at the U.S. Open. Today at No. 61 with that strained abdominal muscle healed, Marino is eager to pick back up where she left off in Memphis, and while she believes the top 10 is realistic some day, she's willing to be patient.
"Personally for me, it's not good to push myself with numbers because I tend to get obsessed with that stuff," Marino said. "If I even look at points and rankings, I start to drive myself nuts. For me, it's best to just feel really good about how I'm playing, and this is an exciting time for me."