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.