Americans Harrison, Mattek-Sands left their marks on the dirt of Paris

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Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Lucie Safarova have won five Grand Slam doubles titles together. (AP)

Last month, on the very day that Ryan Harrison reached a career-high No. 42 in the world in singles, the 25-year-old Louisiana native penned a missive on his Facebook page thanking his family, friends, coaches and fans for “supporting me during what has been a very difficult time in my career.”

Once a top U.S. junior who won his first ATP match at age 15, Harrison had tumbled from No. 43 in July of 2012 to No. 197 a little more than two years later.

“This was not my vision, and I did not even recognize myself on court,” Harrison wrote. “My frustration was showing, and over the next few years I went from being a top competitor, passionate tennis player and fan to being so scared of what I was going to get out of myself each day that I didn’t even want to go on court.

"… My career dreams were disappearing, and as much as I loved tennis, feeling like a disappointment makes anything tougher to deal with.”

After a loss in the first round of qualifying at Wimbledon last year, Harrison even contemplated quitting. Then, bolstered by getting through qualifying and then beating fifth-seeded Milos Raonic in the second round of the U.S. Open last August, Harrison began to claw his way back. He won his first ATP singles title in Memphis in February and, despite a first-round loss in singles at Roland Garros, is now ranked a career-high No. 41.

Even better, Harrison won his first major title in Paris as he and New Zealander Michael Venus captured the doubles championship with a 7-6 (5), 6-7 (4), 6-3 victory over fellow American Donald Young and Mexico’s Santiago Gonzalez. With the win, Harrison became the first American man not named Mike or Bob Bryan to win the French Open men’s doubles since Jonathan Stark won with Byron Black of Zimbabwe in 1994. The third-seeded Bryan brothers, two-time French Open champs and runners-up the last two years, were upset in the second round by Sam Groth and Robert Lindstedt.

The last time American men faced each other in the Roland Garros doubles final was in 1980, when Victor Amaya and Hank Pfister defeated Brian Gottfried and Mexican Raul Ramirez for the title. It was also the first all-unseeded final since 1993, when brothers Luke and Murphy Jensen ousted Marc Goellner and David Prinosil.

Harrison and Venus were playing in only their fifth ATP tournament together—they also won in Estoril last month—but they have been virtual partners for years. The 29-year-old Venus is coached by Harrison’s father, Pat, and has lived in Harrison’s Bradenton, Fla. home on and off since he was a kid. Pat is a coach at the IMG Academy.

“He was like a brother growing up,” said Ryan, who asked Venus to be a groomsman when he married Lauren McHale (Christina’s sister) in April. “He taught me how to drive, taught me a lot of things—one thing he didn’t teach me was how to talk to girls—but he was someone who’s been there for a lot of memorable moments in my life. To have him with me for the most special moment of my career is surreal.

“You always dream of winning a Grand Slam every time you’re playing as a kid,” added Harrison, who wouldn’t look beyond the clay-court season but now hopes that he and Venus will play together the rest of the year. “But I know that for Michael and me, it’s even more special that we’re able to do it alongside each other because he’s like a brother. He’s been a part of my family.”

Sometimes it seems as if Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Lucie Safarova—#TeamBucie, as they and their fans call them—are a little like siblings as well. The American-Czech duo compete together, train together, make goofy selfie videos together and even play practical jokes on one another. Last Sunday they won their second French Open in the last three years together, crushing the Australian duo of Ashleigh Barty and Casey Dellacqua, 6-2, 6-1, in a little more than an hour.

The last time Americans won both the men’s and women’s doubles titles at Roland Garros was 23 years ago, when Gigi Fernandez teamed with Belarusian Natasha Zvereva to win the women’s and Stark and Black won the men’s.  

Mattek-Sands and Safarova have now won five majors together, and three straight. (Mattek-Sands also won the French Open mixed- doubles title with Mike Bryan in 2015.) The team captured last year’s U.S. Open over Frenchwomen Caroline Garcia and Kristina Mladenovic, and January’s Australian Open by defeating the unseeded team of Czech Andrea Hlavackova and Peng Shuai of China. Only a win at Wimbledon stands between them and a “Serena Slam”—the chance to hold all four majors (though not in one calendar year) at the same time. The last team to accomplish that feat was Serena and Venus Williams, when they won the French Open in 2010.

“It’s funny, because we don’t even think about it that way,” said the 32-year-old Mattek-Sands, who will also try to help the U.S. win its first Fed Cup title in 17 years when it takes on Belarus in the final in November. “We are taking it one match at a time. Really, we kind of enjoy our practice days. We enjoy our off days.”

Mattek-Sands has another honor she’s currently kvelling over. She’s been nominated for the All Sports United’s Humanitarian Award, competing against other top athletes such as former football players Doug Flutie and Boomer Esiason, golfer Jim Furyk and fellow tennis player Madison Keys. The top vote-getter receives $10,000, to go to the charity of his or her choice—in Mattek-Sands’ case, that’s the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Supporters can go here to join Team BMS and vote for the award.

For now, Mattek-Sands and Safarova—the 2015 French Open singles runner-up to Serena Williams—have their sights set on London.

“We’re really excited for grass,” said Mattek-Sands. “We’re looking forward to Wimbledon. We love playing on grass. We’re going to be ready there, too.”


WATCH: Rafa's unseen journey to his 10th French Open title:

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