For many reasons, the 2020 tennis season was almost unbelievably unprecedented. Tournaments were cancelled left, right and centre; WTA World No. 1 Ashleigh Barty and ATP legend Roger Federer didn’t play a single match after February; and fans were seldom to be seen in stands following the tours’ resumption in August.
As the 2021 season kicked off this past week, much remained “unprecedented.”
For the first time in recent memory, there was no January tennis being played in Australia. Instead, the Middle East played host to not only a WTA 500 event but to Australian Open qualifying as well, with the men’s singles competition being held in Doha, while the women competed in Dubai.
Five Canadians entered the qualifying draws across both Persian Gulf metropolises, but only one managed to earn a coveted spot in the main draw of the first Grand Slam of the year, being played in February for the first time in its 109-year history.
Brayden Schnur had a tough draw out of the gates, facing the unpredictable No. 12 seed Prajnesh Gunneswaran in the first round and succumbing in three sets. The Pickering, Ontario native will be looking to crack the Top 100 this year after coming close in a breakthrough 2019 campaign.
Steven Diez and Peter Polansky both scrapped their way to the second round of qualifying with three-set victories in the first round, only to come up short against their respective opponents, Henri Laaksonen and Alexandre Muller.
Genie Bouchard, who had capped off her 2020 season by rising nearly 200 spots in the rankings thanks to a resurgent run of form after the tour resumed, was unable to find her footing in the second round of qualifying against an in-the-zone Yuan Yue. The 22 year old from China clawed her way back in the second set from a double break down with a barrage of winners for which No. 25 seed Bouchard had few answers in a 6-2, 6-4 upset loss.
Yet the lone success in Australian Open qualifying came in the form of Rebecca Marino, now 30 years old and on the second comeback of her career following a year and a half away from competition to deal with both a foot injury as well as the loss of her father due to cancer, who was one of the main motivating factors for her first comeback in 2018.
Marino was flawless from the start, going unbroken in her first match to advance to the second round, where she fought off 24th-seed Viktoriya Tomova in a tight two-setter.
The Vancouver, B.C native would need only two sets as well in her final match, defeating Maryna Zanevska of Belgium 6-4, 7-6(9) to qualify for her first Grand Slam main draw since the Australian Open in 2013 – one of the last tournaments of her ‘first career.’
Such large gaps between Grand Slam appearances are largely unprecedented. Former World No. 1 Kim Clijsters, who announced a surprise comeback at the start of last year, played her first Slam in exactly eight years the 2020 US Open. Tennis legend Martina Navratilova had 10 years between her initial 1994 retirement and making a short-lived comeback at the 2004 Wimbledon championships.
Marino, likewise, finds herself in impressive company; it’s been exactly eight years since her last Slam main draw appearance, which was a sobering 6-3, 6-0 loss in the first round to Peng Shuai. Yet in 2021, the kindly Canadian is playing better than ever, with her serve firing (she hit 16 aces in her final qualifying win over Zanevska) and her forehand the same deadly weapon that saw her hit toe-to-toe with Venus Williams all those years ago in her breakthrough 2010 US Open campaign.
Indeed, such a long gap in Grand Slam attendance is largely unprecedented – as has been finding the name ‘Rebecca Marino’ on a draw sheet over the last few years, which have seen Canadian women’s tennis enter a golden age led by the likes of Bouchard, Bianca Andreescu, Leylah Fernandez, and Gabriela Dabrowski in doubles.
But no one ever said ‘unprecedented’ has to be a bad thing.