Sometimes Down, Never Out

Wednesday, April 30, 2014 /by
Photos by Peter Bodo
Photos by Peter Bodo

NEW YORK—On a day when Bethanie Mattek-Sands ought to have been hitting tennis balls in Europe on a red-clay court under bright sun, she came hobbling through a cold, driving rain and the giant sliding glass doors of the New York Hospital for Special Surgery.

Accompanied by her husband Justin, Mattek-Sands was about to begin her first day of rehab after undergoing surgery on her left hip on Monday.

“Rehab. . .” she would say with a sigh during her ensuing therapy session, “that’s the discouraging part of this. When I did my knee last year I was sitting on a table waiting to get the results of an MRI and I just said to Justin, ‘I just don’t know if I can get through the rehab. I’m just not mentally ready to go through the pain.’”

She paused, and a smile as bright as the day was dark crept over her lips. “Eventually, though, the competitive part of me beats out the I-wanna-get-outta-here part.”

That “competitive part” has had lots of practice at this—more than some players endure in their entire careers. The irrepressible, ebullient 29-year-old whose sense of fashion is Lady Gaga-esque has had to grapple with four major injuries in her career, and she hasn’t been healthy enough to play a full schedule over a one-year period since 2010.

She’s had two hip surgeries now, a severe shoulder injury, a broken foot, and knee surgery. “A lot of players by this point might have folded up and said, ‘I’m not doing this,’” Justin told me, as we watched Beth go through some light work on the stationary bike. “But she feels like her game is at a peak and she still has four, five good years left.”

That optimism and can-do attitude is part of Mattek-Sands’ charm. She may not be destined to win Wimbledon or challenge Maria Sharapova’s earning power, but she’s a glowing example of a person who wakes up each morning feeling lucky to be alive and to be doing what she’s doing. Would that all of us were so appreciative of our lot—and capable of truly believing, as Mattek-Sands does, that our ability to improve stretches on and on. . . and on.

Minnesota born, Mattek-Sands overcame long odds to make it as a pro player almost entirely on the strength of her determination, and zeal for the game. Yet all the while, even after the family moved from Wisconsin to Florida so she could nurture her talent, she successfully resisted playing, acting, or looking like she had just been spit out by the assembly line at tennis academy.

She remained faithful to her midwestern roots in everything from her hobbies to the husband she chose (Justin played college football and is an avid outdoorsman). While her outrageous sense of fashion—anti-fashion might be a better term, at least to the Anna Wintour crowd—is flamboyant in a decidedly un-midwestern way, the only statement she seems to be making is, Why not have a little fun, why not be a little different?

As we’ve seen numerous times, a little different doesn’t always go over big in tennis, a sport with its own extremely conservative culture. Still, Mattek-Sands fought her way up through the rankings and ultimately established herself as a peer. She hit a career-high ranking of No. 30 in July 2011—not coincidentally, shortly before her string of serious injuries commenced.

Justin likes to point out that over the past few years his wife has averaged playing about a dozen tournaments a year, which is roughly half the workload of a typical, healthy pro. The reduced schedule doesn’t facilitate the fine-tuning that takes place over the course of a career.

“It’s going to be little things after a certain point, but you can always improve,” Bethanie said. “Even if my ranking drops, I know how I play and its better than ever. I want to be healthy as I can get because I honestly feel better now than I did when I was 19, 20, 21. . . from nutrition to training to rehab, I’m doing everything differently—and better.”

Mattek-Sands believes some of her other, lesser physical issues, like the right groin strain that forced her to pull out of the French Open doubles last year, were the result of compensating for the pain and limited mobility she had for so long in her left hip.

Her trials in 2014 began with the advent of the new year. She qualified for Sydney, and produced one of her best back-to-back performances in the main draw, knocking off rapidly improving Eugenie Bouchard and top-seeded Agnieszka Radwanska. But she had to pull out and default three games into her quarterfinal with Madison Keys.

Mattek-Sands would win just two matches over her next five tournaments. By the time she got to Miami, where she lost to Elina Svitolina in the first round, Justin was having to pull on her socks and tie her shoes before matches. She decided to get a CT scan and X-rays, but the results were inconclusive—until she fell under the care of renowned hip man Dr. Bryan T. Kelly.

“It was really frustrating for the last few years,” she said “My hip wouldn’t move the way it should but I didn’t know what was wrong. So I learned to play around it. I would get stuck in positions; it affected my backhand follow-through, and it ruled out hitting an open-stance backhand. Once we found out exactly what the problem was, I said to myself, ‘Okay, either deal with it—or quit.’”

Mattek-Sands will return to Phoenix to rehab and prepare for a return to the tour some time this fall. She’s looking forward to spending time at home, partly because she loves her dog, a 140-pound boerboal mastiff, Ruger. By the time she’s fit again, she’ll be fast approaching 30 years of age, but she isn’t tired of the grind just yet.

That’s partly because Justin, who owns his own insurance business, gets to travel with her—and this couple knows how to have a good time. He may wear camo like many another bearded good ole boys, and she may enjoy bowhunting and trips to the shooting range, but they also describe themselves as “foodies” and cultural tourists. They love Paris, where Justin likes to prowl the fresh-air markets and cook up gourmet meals in whatever apartment they’re renting.

“I’m going to miss Paris this year,” Beth said, recalling how last year she upset No. 6 seed Li Na and then introduced the French press to Macklemore, the American rapper. “But in the big picture I’m lucky. Justin can travel with me, so I don’t really experience the tour as a grind. I don’t feel at all like I’m tired, or finished. I have some good years of tennis left.”

Right now, though, just getting to compete for one regular, old-fashioned, 12-month year might seem like a rare luxury for this blithe, free-spirit who’s been down, but never out.

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