Game, Set, Mattek-Sands: In Life And On The Tennis Court, She’s Either Winning Or Learning

WASHINGTON, March 22, 2018 (by Michael Dickens)

It didn’t matter that Bethanie Mattek-Sands didn’t win her first match in her comeback from a gruesome knee injury she suffered in last year’s Wimbledon. There was a lot of fan support for the 32-year-old American wild card (who turns 33 on March 23) when she walked out on the Grandstand court at the Miami Open presented by Itaú Wednesday afternoon to face veteran Frenchwoman Alizé Cornet.

Mattek-Sands received a rousing ovation from the crowd. After 1 hour and 37 minutes, the scoreboard reflected that the No. 38-ranked Cornet won the match in straight sets, 6-2, 7-5. Yet, while Mattek-Sands’s match statistics were far from extraordinary – zero aces, zero double faults, 59% first-serve percentage, 23 of 41 (56%) first-serve points won, 6 of 11 break points saved in 10 service games, outpointed 73-58 – it set a bench mark and suggested to her and to those who watched that only good things lie ahead.

Following the match, Mattek-Sands tweeted:

Recently, Mattek-Sands, who is currently ranked No. 143, spoke on film about the agonizing moment she crumbled to the grass at Wimbledon last summer, in which she ruptured her right knee patellar tendon, in a black and white video produced by Tennis Warehouse. She also talked about the hardest part of her recovery.

“Wimbledon. Second round. The beginning of the third set. I had no idea what was going to happen. I think it was something that was a slight slip that happened in a split second. I went down so fast. Everything slowed down. I heard something pop. As I was falling, it felt like my leg was bending the wrong way, and I kept thinking in my mind, ‘Was that my knee?’ What’s going on? Did I do something bad?’

“I had all these thoughts as I was falling to the ground and I just felt this tension in my knee as I was falling to the ground and I made the mistake of looking down at it. It didn’t look right. It looked messed up. I went to see if I could touch my knee and put it back in place. Obviously, I did not. That’s the moment where I screamed out because I knew I wasn’t walking off that court. … My dislocated knee cap was up in my quad. I was screaming to get off the court. It seemed like it took forever to get to the hospital.”

Mattek-Sands, who has enjoyed five Top 100 singles seasons in the past 10 years, admitted a million things must have been going through her mind and she remembered talking a lot to distract her from the pain she was feeling. She wondered what the surgery was going to be like as well as the rehabilitation. “I really had to take a moment and take a breath,” she recalled.

Then, after the surgery, there was a long period of recovery and rehabilitation. Still, Mattek-Sands wondered how long would it take before she could return to the court. First, she would have to be in a brace for six weeks. “You think back at all the years you’ve trained, and then in six days your leg is smaller than the other one. It’s just not the same. For the first time, I really felt helpless.

“The first time I was able to get out of my brace, I felt like Bambi,” she recalled, holding back tears. “I needed somebody to hold me up while I took a shower. It was a real moment where you think about people who aren’t able to use their limbs and who aren’t able to walk or have a disability.”

During her downtime, Mattek-Sands, who finished 2017 ranked No. 121 in singles and No. 8 in doubles, honed her skills as a broadcaster, working with Tennis Channel during last fall’s U.S. Open on their daily Tennis Channel Live at the U.S. Open show and for ESPN at this year’s Australian Open, where she worked as an analyst on several women’s singles matches and participated in several panel discussions. It gave her a chance to be around tennis during her recovery and rehabilitation.

“When I started doing commentary, one of things I started doing was breaking down the games of some of my opponents,” she said. “I was basically doing film sessions on players I was going to go back and play and exactly explaining my thought process to the fans. I learned a lot about myself. It was a journey of self-realization.” 

A winner of five Grand Slam doubles titles as well as a gold medal in mixed doubles with fellow American Jack Sock at the 2016 Rio Olympics, Mattek-Sands earned high marks and praise from both Tennis Channel and ESPN, and left the door open for a return to broadcasting, either while still an active player or after her playing career is over. Her outgoing personality and inside knowledge of the sport as a player make her a natural fit.

Back on the practice court, Mattek-Sands endured numerous hours going through drills with coaches and trainers, rebuilding the strength in her injured knee and regaining her tennis skills set. “It’s not just about coming back,” she said. “I want to make an impact. I want to be better. Again, I had a lot of momentum when I stopped. My goal is to pick that up, again, when I start back up.”

Mattek-Sands admitted that her injury gave her a lot of time to think about her mental state of being. “It’s not about just being able to walk on the court to say ‘I did it.’ I want to do more.”

Indeed, one thing I’ve learned about Mattek-Sands is she’s a big believer of attitude – positive attitude. She’s always asking herself, “What can I do to get better?” Her down time gave her an opportunity to break down all facets of her game. She felt that even the smallest details add up to being difference makers. In time, Mattek-Sands knows she will be able to move better – to run and jump – on the court and to hit the ball better, too. She admits, “So much has to do with what’s in your mind, too.”

Mattek-Sands, who is often referred to as America’s tennis rock star for her colorful apparel and hair – and her signature knee-high compression socks – loves to learn new things and to communicate her thoughts through social media. On Wednesday night, she tweeted this stream of consciousness:

Although Mattek-Sands didn’t win her first match back against Cornet, it didn’t matter. Each day, she’s enjoying the process and being in the moment. She’s won our hearts by coming back from injury – and, for now, that’s good enough.

About the author

Michael Dickens is a Washington, D.C.-area freelance journalist who writes and blogs about tennis.