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Bethanie Mattek-Sands' State of the Union: the American doubles star basks in milestone Roland Garros run
Partnering defending singles champ Iga Swiatek, the game's premier stateswoman outlines the key to doubles success, balancing media obligations, and how she evolved into an unapologetic extrovert.
Published Jun 10, 2021
WATCH: Mattek-Sands and Swiatek surge into their first Grand Slam semifinal as a team at Roland Garros.
Time was running out for Bethanie Mattek-Sands. She only had a half-hour before the Miami Open’s sign-in deadline for doubles, and the former WTA doubles No. 1 had exhausted her rolodex of potential partners.
“I went through about four different people,” Mattek-Sands recalled at Roland Garros on Monday, “and I was going down the rankings when I saw Iga’s name.”
Though not exactly a fixture on the doubles circuit, Iga Swiatek’s doubles results stand nearly as tall as what the young Pole has accomplished in singles; in the same fortnight that she captured her maiden major title in singles, she also paired Nicole Melichar to reach the semifinals in doubles.
“I had to get her number from someone and texted her like, ‘I know this is kind of last minute, but if you’re up for playing dubs in Miami, let’s give it a whirl.’ She texted me back, ‘I think we’d have to sign in in about 20 minutes, right?’ Next time, I said, I’ll give you at least a couple more days to think it over with the team, but right now you only have 20 minutes to decide!
“It just kind of worked. We hit it off and made the semifinals in Miami. It was fun from the start and I feel like that’s kind of a lot of how my partnerships have happened, where we just give it a try and end up doing really well.”
It’s no struggle to imagine how convincing the charis-Mattek Phoenix resident can be. Even virtually, the American is all but bursting through the screen—sporting large eyelashes, her signature spikey blonde hair, and is able to land both punchlines and pathos with incredible ease.
“We could use a lighting tutorial over here,” she jokes as her breadth of broadcast experience comes through, snapping her fingers at the unenviable prospect of being backlit and promising to bring her portable ring light to the next interview.
Together she and Swiatek saved seven match points to shock top seeds Elise Mertens and Hsieh Su-Wei to make another semifinal in Paris—something of a milestone for Mattek-Sands, who hasn’t been this far in women’s doubles since suffering a catastrophic knee injury in 2017. At that point, she was three quarters to a Non-Calendar Year Grand Slam with Lucie Safarova or, the other half of Team Bucie.
“You find yourself constantly comparing how you’re playing now to before the injury, and a lot of times you only focus on results. Results are obviously important. It’s why we train, and everyone wants to win out there, but also, for example, it’s possible that I’m in the best shape I’ve ever been—even before my injury. I’ve really worked hard to not only rehab but also come back stronger, faster, and fitter. My nutrition has been on point, although I’ll say I’ve been cheating a little bit with the croissants and cassoulet.
“Otherwise I’m feeling really great, and Iga is obviously on a roll, too. In our second round, she hit a behind-the-back shot—I thought she was going to hit a ‘tweener—and we won the point, so I was like, ‘Dude you have it all!’ I love that she has the freedom to play any shot like that in matches. So many players can do things like that in practice, but you’ll never see that creativity on the match court.”
Something about Swiatek’s topspin forehand is oddly reminiscent of Safarova’s lefty swing, but essential to Mattek-Sands’ success with so many partners has been her ability to abandon the instinct to make those comparisons.
“Nobody compares to Lucie!” she stops to blow kisses to her Czech bestie. “I have to wrap Lucie up in a bow, put her on a shelf next to all the trophies we won, and start fresh with new partners.
“I try to separate the partners I play with because all partnerships boil down to setting up our strengths. Whatever she does well or whatever her favorite shot is, that’s what I want her to see the most out there on the court. Certainly, when it comes to Iga, you have a lot of options, because she can hit pretty much every shot.”
Mattek-Sands and Swiatek first paired up in the midst of a disappointing singles stretch for the then-teen, and the duo will be in a similar situation this week as the defending champion went out in a surprising straight-setter to Maria Sakkari. An outspoken introvert, Swiatek has nonetheless embraced the obvious personality contrast this partnership presents.
“It's actually good when extrovert meet an introvert, because it helps us,” she mused after advancing into the last eight in singles. “She’s the kind of person that can actually have great contact and relationship with anybody, I guess, because she's really open with people. It's something that I have to learn from her.”
It’s a hard schedule to balance. I think we saw Barbora Krejcikova playing singles, doubles, and mixed! Iga’s young and fresh, and feeling fit, so I think she can do it. It’s been nice that the French Open has scheduled her on only one match a day, but even that means there’s no days off. That’s a hashtag right there: #NoDaysOff. Bethanie Mattek-Sands on balancing multiple disciplines at major tournaments
Few can provide a more comprehensive education in this respect than Mattek-Sands, who has, unwittingly or otherwise, taken on the mentorship role with other young partners like Sofia Kenin and Jessica Pegula, invoking memories of a time in the mid-2000s when the latest hotshot could partner a still-active Martina Navratilova.
“I think I have about 4000 trophies to go before I can even enter Martina’s stratosphere of accomplishments,” said Mattek-Sands, “but I will absolutely encourage everyone to play doubles. You have a buddy, a friend out there, and it affords you the opportunity to try different things, work on new shots. It’s such a cool game, and I like when I see players inspired, not just professionally but even at lower levels, to go play dubs. Tennis can be a little social!
Frequently exchanging memes and GIFs with Swiatek on WhatsApp, she remains confident her personality will continue to unfurl over the years—citing herself as a reformed introvert.
“I was really shy and really serious when I was younger. I was taught to be serious, that in order to win, you’ve got to be serious. I’ll be real: once I started enjoying myself and accepting my personality, that’s when my results got better.
“I think there’s a lot of introverts that, given the right confidence and the right conversation, can be more social and extroverted. Just look at me now! You can’t stop me from talking!”
Mattek-Sands has lent her inimitable voice to various media outlets in between various lay-offs, commentating for ESPN and Tennis Channel, and co-hosting the first season of Tennis United during last year’s COVID-19 lockdown.
“I have a lot of natural energy; this isn’t caffeine here! I like for fans to feel connected with the players. I know a lot of them from this side of things, but not every player is as outgoing as I am. Still, they all have unique personalities and things to offer the tennis world.”
A full metamorphosis into media personality remains off in the future. Time may be running out on for the 36-year-old, but Mattek-Sands clearly still has plenty to offer on the court.
“I think everyone’s five-year plans went up in flames after this last COVID year. The bubbles really did crush my spirit a little bit. I was outgoing and really made a point of enjoying the cities that I traveled to, so having to go compete on the court and then go to the room, eat there, and then go back to the courts, was really tough for me. I did manage to get much fitter, so there were obviously things I was able to do in the interim, but I’m glad to see some return to normalcy.
“I just couldn’t stop or retire in this moment, and for that to have been the end of everything. The Olympics was obviously a really big goal of mine, and I’m just enjoying playing tennis right now. At some point, I’ll do that self-evaluation of where I’m at. If the passion’s still there, I’ll keep playing. If it’s somewhere else, I’ll go in that direction. I want to be honest and fair to myself, too, but right now I’m feeling really great on the court.”