Bethanie Mattek-Sands is getting jumpy, and she hasn’t even had any coffee. She is tucked into a sofa, sipping herbal tea, while her husband, Justin, is seated beside her, guzzling coffee with a double shot of espresso.
The gold medalist—she won the mixed doubles title with Jack Sock in Rio de Janeiro last week—is passionately discussing gender equity in tennis, equal pay, ranking equality and even singles-versus-doubles equality.
“You don’t get paid for playing women’s doubles,” says Mattek-Sands, who won the 2015 Australian Open and French Open with Lucie Safarova, and won the 2015 French Open mixed doubles with Mike Bryan. “There are no endorsement dollars, even if you’re ranked in the Top 5.
“Men and women aren’t equal in tennis right now, even if we get the same prize money at the Grand Slams,” she adds. “The men have many more opportunities than the women. A $250,000 men’s event pays the players more than a $250,000 women’s event. The Top 50 ranked men and the Top 50 ranked women in singles have big differences in their earning status. It’s a repeated theme that we have to stick up for the women.”
Anyone who has ever watched Mattek-Sands play knows that there is nothing shy about the 31-year-old. She sports tattoos, has dyed her hair orange, took a WTA headshot wearing Google Glass and once donned a tennis-ball-studded dress to a pre-Wimbledon party.
“I was super shy,” she says with a hearty laugh. “I was a tomboy and ultra-competitive … But I wasn’t in-your-face back then.”
Tennis helped, mostly because she was so good at it.
Employing an array of talents, Mattek-Sands eschewed most junior events and made her pro debut in Philadelphia when she was just 14. But while she has twice reached the round of 16 at majors, she has never won a WTA singles title, and her career-high singles ranking stalled at No. 30 five years ago.
Where Mattek-Sands has gotten the most out of her abilities is in doubles. She has won 19 titles with 10 different partners, in addition to 11 runner-up finishes.
Mattek-Sands’ spark and goofy personality make her one of the most well-liked players on tour, another reason she is a popular doubles choice.
"We complement each other very well," Safarova says. "She's amazing at the net and I'm safer from the back. She gets so pumped up out there that she could be breaking her leg and she's still going to get that point. About the only thing she's bad at is being on time. She's always 10 minutes late and carrying 10 bags of things she doesn't need."
For much of the last decade, Mattek-Sands has shared her life with Justin, whom she married in November 2008. The two met in October 2007, but given Bethanie’s travel schedule, they took some time to connect. On their third date, Bethanie threw caution to the wind and blurted out, “All right, I think I’m ready to have your kids.”
Fortunately, Justin was eager to go along for the ride.
That May, Justin decided the time was right. He flew to Paris during the French Open and told his fiancée that they were to be married during Wimbledon’s off-Sunday a month later. As it happened, however, rain delayed play and prevented the nuptials—not to mention that Bethanie was to play Serena Williams the next day. The wedding was pushed off until the fall.
With Justin’s encouragement, Bethanie lined her inner right forearm with a series of tattoos featuring a Zen garden. Justin, for his part, has his arms and back tattooed, including “Bethanie” in massive letters and the places and dates of her Grand Slam doubles wins.
While on the road with Bethanie, Justin helps with fitness and lends support. And it was Justin who noticed, five years ago, that his wife seemed sluggish both in the gym and on the court. Extensive testing revealed severe food allergies.
A spate of injuries has also hindered Mattek-Sands over the years, taking her away from the game every time she seems ready to break through. This year, so far, she feels better than she has in a long time. She’s entrenched in the Top 20 in doubles, and hopes to be able to play until she turns 35.
For now, Mattek-Sands is grateful that she has learned not to take herself, and her tennis, too seriously. She does, however, still get riled up about the state of the game and wants to make it her mission to improve things.
“I’ve been a part of the WTA board and I’m looking to run again,” she says. “Given my personality, I know everyone on tour. I’m not afraid to talk about the sensitive issues.
“There have to be some changes, including distribution of prize money. The top players should make the most money, but if the No. 120-ranked player can’t book their flight or can’t pay their hotel bill, then something is wrong.
“In the gym,” Mattek-Sands adds, her voice rising, “you can’t tell who’s No. 1 and who’s No. 120. They’re all working just as hard.”