The hero myth typically tells of an ordinary person who overcame great trials to achieve immortality. Decked out in her signature superhero style, Bethanie Mattek-Sands first jumped from the pages of a comic book and onto the professional circuit in 1999, and few would argue that the former WTA Doubles No.1 hasn’t had to deal with extreme adversity in the ensuing two decades.
“I remember the first day that I got on the grass court at home getting ready for Wimbledon,” she recalled in a phone interview over the off-season. “I was literally just jogging around the court, and I had a momentary thought like, ‘I don’t want to be here, I actually don’t want to play on grass.’”
The American could be forgiven for any apprehension; after all, it was less than a year prior that she slipped on Court 17 of the All England Club against Sorana Cirstea, dislocating her kneecap and rupturing her patellar ligament. On the singles court at the time, Mattek-Sands was a handful of wins from a Non-Calendar Year Grand Slam in doubles with partner and longtime friend Lucie Safarova.
Flanked by Safarova and fitness trainer-cum-choreographer Shaun T, she danced into an uncertain future.
“We did that video the day after I was injured, and I think that kickstarted my attitude of how I wanted to approach something that happened so dramatically and stopped my momentum. We were the No.1 seeds, we had won three Slams in a row, I had won a gold medal, and all of this momentum stopped.
"I think making that decision to do something like that the next day, that was actually my biggest win of this year.”
Mattek-Sands defines her comeback - one that already includes a US Open mixed doubles title with Jamie Murray - by similar ‘small victories.’
“I don’t want that one win to take away from my progress in the whole year, starting in Miami. I was proud how I played that match against Alizé Cornet. I was proud how I went and played at Charleston, my first time back on clay courts, sliding around a little bit, trusting my feet. Obviously, there was getting back on the grass at Wimbledon. There were so many highlights for me, and it would be unfair to say the peak of it all, what made it worth it, was my US Open trophy, because that was not the case.
“Obviously I saw myself holding another trophy, but when I was injured, I felt really far away from that. I had to win with bending my knee 90 degrees. I had to be good with taking a couple steps without my crutches. So I created all these ‘wins’ last year, and I really felt like it was a combination of that that actually led me to get that US Open trophy with Jamie.”
Still, it was a stunning accomplishment given how she spent the Australian Open a mere eight months earlier. Chatting alongside veteran analysts Mary Joe Fernandez and Pam Shriver, the ESPN and Tennis Channel desks are proving to be second homes for a player whose talk is as good as her tennis.
“I was just bringing my personality and my energy to that side of tennis. It works out well, because I’m talking about friends of mine, people I played against or with, so I was able to engage fans with my behind-the-scenes stories and my outlook on stuff like strategy and momentum shifts.
“I’m definitely mixing it in for 2019, seeing what I could do in and around my schedule. This year, I’m playing all three events. I was like, ‘Guys, I can’t guarantee you some days!’ But when I’m free, I’m definitely sliding in there, so you can expect to see me on the court, and behind the desk as well.”
The former will undoubtedly be the primary focus as the American plans a full slate of singles, doubles, and mixed in Melbourne, reuniting with Murray and kicking off a partnership with Dutch veteran Demi Schuurs at the Sydney International last week.
“Jamie and I texted each other a couple weeks ago, and he just asked me if I was ‘up for the road to the cup again,’ and I said, ‘Hell yeah! We gotta do this again!’ It went pretty well at US Open, so let’s get out there.” I really enjoy having a good friendship with my doubles partner, and I like playing with people I’m comfortable around. Jamie’s an awesome person, super positive, and it’s really a joy playing next to him.
“As for Demi, she had an awesome season, winning seven tournaments, different partners everywhere, and crushed it with everyone! It was like, ‘Just give me somebody! Put somebody on the court with me, and I’m going to win with them.’ Lucie and I played her and Barty in Canada; we played well and they played better. So I’m really, really excited to get to know her better, and see how our games match up.”
The new partnership is a bittersweet one for Bethanie, who bears another trial as she bids farewell to Safarova - the other half of Team Bucie - who announced her retirement at the end of 2018.
“I know it was a tough decision for her, and, trust me, we’ve had many emotional phone calls. I’ve had a little vacation time with her; we went to Yellowstone National Park up in Montana, and we’re planning a whitewater rafting trip sometime in the summer in the Grand Canyon Park.
“We’re just friends through and through, and And I know a lot of people are really sad to see her go, trust me, I’m at the top of that list. She was my buddy at all the tournaments, and there were moments in the locker room prior to matches that will be bigger memories for me than raising the actual trophy. The only thing that keeps me from crying is knowing that I still have her as a friend going forward. Otherwise I’d be bawling right now!”
The disappointments have done nothing to dampen her sense of adventure; a consummate binge-watcher, she backed up her 2017 Law & Order: SVU tour with a visit to the Blue Bloods set back in August.
“I’ll be an outline on the ground, I’m okay with that!”
She began 2019 with a bang, spending her holidays with husband Justin in New Zealand ahead of the ASB Classic, bungee jumping in Queenstown.
“My body feels really great,” she insists. “I think 33 is the new 23, so I’m just going to say that. Like Benjamin Button, I’m going backwards!”
Moving forward in every other way, Mattek-Sands is undaunted by her supersized schedule - one that includes a fashion collaboration with Lucky in Love - and cites advice given by fellow sporting superhero Roger Federer when asked what keeps her going.
“I really feel that my passion for tennis is still there. I felt like tennis was taken away from me a couple times through my injuries. While I was interviewing Roger, he said, ‘All this time off, don’t stress about it, you’re adding it on the back end of your career.’ That’s actually a great way to think about it.
“I love tennis, and if I’m going into the season and walking on the court mentally fresh and physically ready to go, I want to be a part of it. There’s plenty of things I’m passionate about, whether it’s fashion or TV commentary. It won’t ever be the same as actually playing in those stadiums, but it’s still other things that I’m interested in.
“So I can continue playing because I love it, I feel fresh, and play the tournaments that I love. I get to be engaged with the fans that are inspired by me, but actually inspire me, and I feel like I get to gain some lost time with some of the injuries I’ve had in the past few years.”