One of my earliest tennis-related memories involves me truncating a fifth-grade journal entry to watch a night match during the 2002 US Open. At the bottom of the page, I wrote “CAPRIATI VS. MATTEK” in purple gel ink before apparently going off to watch then-top American Jennifer Capriati double-bagel a young Bethanie Mattek-Sands under the lights at Arthur Ashe Stadium.
I don’t recall anything from the match (least of all what the now-infamous fashion rebel was wearing), but looking back over the last decade, it was undoubtedly the last time the American veteran could be described as anything other than “memorable.”
In her early 20s, she turned the large shadow cast by compatriots like the Williams sisters and Davenport into a whacky sideshow act. Over the years, the WTA’s resident couture maven has played matches in leopard print, uneven sleeves, and knee socks (not to mention her signature eye black). Despite failing to rack up big wins in her early years on the Tour, she became a player who commanded attention in other ways, and her honest quirkiness ended up gaining her a cult following. Her showman-like style, however, belies a tidily efficient all-court game, honed by her frequent success in doubles. Where she may lack the wattage of her contemporaries, she nonetheless is more than capable of out-aggressing her peers by taking the ball on the rise and finishing off points at the net.
Looking to join the long roster of her generation’s late bloomers, Mattek-Sands hit her stride in 2011, reaching only her second Slam third-round, but arrived at Wimbledon two weeks later ranked in the top 32 at a major tournament for the first time in her career. Arriving to court in a tennis ball-embellished leather jacket designed by Alex Noble, Mattek-Sands let a three-set heartbreaker to Misaki Doi slip away; from there, the American went on a downward spiral of injuries and early losses. As recently as this January, the American was ranked outside the top 150.
Unbeknownst to many in the tennis world, what seemed like rock bottom for Mattek-Sands was the start of a truly inspiring comeback. Much like current ATP No. 1 Novak Djokovic, she discovered a host of food allergies were contributing to the fatigue she had been feeling last fall. Now carrying a trusty “Do Not Eat” list wherever she goes, Mattek-Sands has revolutionized her diet and fitness. The results were not too far behind. After making the finals of an International event in Kuala Lumpur, she turned things up a notch during the clay court season, the site of her triumphs from two years ago. Sporting a blue tint to her blonde hair, she recorded an emphatic victory over Sloane Stephens in Charleston and a dramatic three-set win over Sara Errani (last year’s French Open finalist) en route to the semifinals of Stuttgart, where she lost to Li Na.
Here in Paris, Mattek-Sands has already completed her career renaissance with revenge over 2011 French Open Champion Li and solid wins over competent clay courters in Lourdes Dominguez-Lino and Paula Ormaechea. Twice coming from a set down, the American has shown tremendous resilience and has translated her willingness to overcome adversity off the court to her matches. She will need all of that fight against the relentless Maria Kirilenko if she hopes to keep the run going and make her first major quarterfinal.
I think about my old journal when I think of Bethanie Mattek-Sands. Every entry was written in a different color of (glittery) ink and, lacking any air of pretension in its prose, its voice never took itself too seriously. But that journal was left unfinished. The best part about Mattek-Sands’s story is that, having already made up so much ground, she has the opportunity to go even farther, to rewrite pages that nobody ever thought would be written in the first place. No matter how or when this French Open chapter ends, Mattek-Sands has made it clear that her story is far from over.