By Nicole Russin
No one knows much about Bethanie Mattek-Sands off court, but likely, the media is to blame. When she lost to Slovenian opponent Polona Hercog 6-2, 6-4 on Monday, covering her US Open match, Sports Illustrated’s Bryan Armen Graham wrote, “Even when an MRI last month revealed a tear in her right rotator cuff suffered shortly after Wimbledon, Mattek-Sands refused surgery.”
What came next wasn’t an analysis of what went wrong, a detailed account of her shoulder injury recovery or a study of Hercog’s playing techniques and strategy. Much of the 564-world article negatively focused on the writer’s thoughts about her appearance and character.
The article continued, “For years, Mattek-Sands’ outsized personality and adventurous fashion sense threatened to obscure her tennis. A striped cowboy hat worn here six years ago earned her a fine from the tour. There have been leopard-and zebra-printed outfits. Her ‘soccer theme’ at Wimbledon in 2006 consisted of �10 football socks, chandelier earrings, a tube top worn over a strappy vest top, tiny running shorts and a headband — and promptly landed in the Wimbledon museum’s collection. The result is the twofold reputation of shrewd self-promoter and clown princess of American tennis.”
Two paragraphs later: “Her outfit Monday was understated by her standards: an All-American theme with red shoes, white top, blue shorts and stars-and-stripes knee-high socks (complemented by a white Cortiglia designer couture bag with red tassels and star patterns).”
“Tennis is my priority,” Mattek-Sands says, clearly not a self-promoter nor needing to be one with her accomplishments.
Throughout the year, Mattek-Sands was the top American female player, ranked 30th in the world. She also regularly blogs for USA Today and was one of six WTA women profiled in the web video contest “Xperia Hot Shots.” “A lot of people view tennis as stuffy. I’m just trying to break that barrier. A lot of players don’t show it on the court. They show their clothes off the court. I’m just showing my personality through my clothes. I’m open about stuff. I’m not scared to try new things, to kind of put myself out there. It’s been fun, kind of a rollercoaster.
“Tennis is so conservative. There’s the gentleman’s club. This and that. The stigma that tennis has. I don’t really wear anything. I wear high socks. That’s the only reason I get that much publicity for what I have worn. It’s colorful stuff, but I’ve had a few people talk to me in the lockers like, ‘Bethanie, you’re getting boring!’ It’s for me. Some people hate it. Some people love it.”
More affectionately, online fans refer to her as the tennis world’s Lady Gaga. “I kind of got deemed the nickname. A lot of the stuff I wear on court isn’t that crazy in the entertainment world.”
A “clown” would not spend one month away from her Phoenix home in Boyertown, Pa., a small town about 40 miles northwest of Philadelphia, missing the entire pre-US Open tournament series, as part of her healing process. “I have had about 8 hours of rehab” per day, says Mattek-Sands, who stayed with her husband Justin Sands and his family.
“I’m pretty good on court. I play a lot of doubles. I like coming to net, throwing a serve and volley here and there. I’m really aggressive. Sometimes, what’s hurt me is a lack of consistency. It’s a matter of finding the right time to attack and be aggressive. I like trying new shots. I’m not your typical, hit cross court all day player.”
This November, Mattek-Sands will celebrate her third wedding anniversary. “It’s funny because I got introduced to him through the doctor I’m getting therapy from now. I was told to train with a trainer and my husband was also working with this fitness trainer. I got his number. Our mutual friend was kind of talking him up. I was just kind of hoping he was hot. He works in insurance, so I had a different idea of him in my head. I went over to his house. He had tats on his arms. We both did a double take. It was love at first sight.” She married him at 23, wearing a very un-bridal black dress.
It’s hard to believe but people might have never heard of Mattek-Sands. “I started playing tennis when I was 5. Right around that time when I had to move to Florida, when I was 12, I had to make the decision which sport I wanted to play. I had done really well in tennis as a junior,” Mattek-Sands remembers, talking about how she might have wound up training for martial arts, gymnastics or basketball. Instead, she began at the Chris Evert Tennis Academy in Boca Raton and “here I am, still playing.”
Maybe the choice was influenced by meeting her idols, one of whom she played with as a kid.
“Growing up, I got the privilege to play with Monica Seles when I was 8 years old. She player super aggressive. She really hit as hard as she did. She autographed a racquet cover for me. My parents still have it in the house. Obviously, Steffi Graf was another one. Her backhand was pretty ridiculous. Up in Wisconsin, I didn’t get a chance to see a lot of players live. I think there was an exhibition I went to once in Chicago.”
Her husband’s presence with her on the tour makes life feel like just another day at home. “Since we’re on the road so much, we both like to cook a lot. He’s the grill master. I like to bake a lot. It’s tough. We’re living in different cities. We always have different restaurants we want to visit. I like shopping, but I think food is a common thing between us. I traveled by myself for a long time and it gets lonely.”
And when she is in Phoenix, every day is work.
“I have a fitness trainer out in Phoenix. He’s pretty tough, but there’s a lot of other athletes in the gym. He has a bunch of NFL and NHL players there. Everyone’s working hard. You do something different every day. I think I’ve been my fittest the last few years. He mixes it up. It’s a surprise every day. I probably do things a lot differently than most players. I don’t do any running, period. I don’t jump rope. I do Iso Extreme. The gist of it is you get in a position, like say lunge, and you do it for a setup. You’ll time yourself to hold each move for five minutes.
“I’m big on eating everything naturally. Anything chemically processed, preservatives, fake sugars, I avoid pretty much. It’s about getting enough protein and eating enough food to recover for the next day. I actually don’t eat enough and it’s hurt me before. Vegetables. If I feel like eating it, I eat it. Mainly, it’s just keeping everything natural.”
When she sneaks in some other foods, she says, “My husband’s favorite of mine is I make a graham cracker crust sweet potato pie. I love it all, chocolate chips, cookies, all the good stuff.”
If one thing in the negative words written is true, it is that Mattek-Sands is a tennis princess — one who values her friends and people working with her.
“My coach is Arizona with me a lot. He’s been over to the house. He actually helps me out a lot. When you’re on the road, you’re seeing them everyday. We go to dinner a lot of nights together. It’s a pretty cool team,” she says about her trainer and coach.
“I have friends I went to school with I keep in touch with. I have some really great friends outside of tennis. I have a lot of friends on tour. You’re competing against them, but you see the same people all the time on tour. Sania Mirza is probably one of my best friends. Bob and Mike Bryan. I actually have a decent amount of friends. Playing mixed doubles I have gotten to know a lot of the guys. I played with John Isner earlier this year. I like spending time with people who like to have a good time.”
Melanie Oudin too counts among her great WTA friends. “Mel’s funny. She cracks me up. She is one of my good friends on tour. We normally end up practicing and hitting with each other.”
Like any princess, she knows the importance of appreciating life inside her castle.
“When I go home, I like staying in my house, going to my pool and hot tub, catching up on Law & Order. I get hooked into these marathons. I get out of it, ‘Oh my god. I watched six hours in a row.'” She also loves CSI, Entourage, Burn Notice, Storage Wars and Pawn Stars, a show she and her husband watch together.
“Obviously, shopping is always fun. On the road, you need to have other little hobbies. It really comes down to movies, shows and iPad apps. I definitely need to be doing more stuff. I got a chance to surf in France earlier this year. I got to drive a racecar in Miami. If there’s something I want to do after tennis, it would be learning how to drive a racecar. I like to have my own time and just being on the road so much, it’s nice being able to unpack and relax a little bit. The home time is definitely cherished, for sure.
“It’s true. I’m actually a veteran on tour,” she laughs.
The good news about all the articles on her is if anything, Mattek-Sands has raised awareness of women’s tennis for the next generation.
“I’ve had a few junior tennis players send pictures of themselves wearing high socks. It’s cool to see some other kids are enjoying tennis and doing something fun.”
Aside from the huge publicity her wardrobe receives, she wants young players to know how tennis makes you a stronger person when the rest of your life might feel like everything is going wrong.
“My biggest thing is have confidence in yourself. Tennis is a tough road. It’s an independent sport. You just really have to have the confidence to be yourself. If you have fun playing a certain way, play that game style. Young girls, and boys too, lose creativity. They lose themselves a little bit. They should be proud of themselves, put themselves out there. Sometimes, in school, things are a little bit different. People might make fun of you. Tennis is a great sport to do. You really need to learn how to make things work, whether you win or lose.”
Mattek-Sands actually wore “colorful” outfits years before Lady Gaga debuted in 2008 and actually wore a dress created by Lady Gaga’s designer Alex Noble. Of her off-court fashion preferences, she explains, “Miu Miu has awesome wedges out now. I either go super high, five inches with a big wedge, or I wear runners. I just got these totally ’70s Missoni pants. Obviously, it doesn’t get that cold in Phoenix, but the fur and leather is coming out. I’ll either really dress up or I’ll be out in sweats. My husband is a total jeans and T-shirts guy. I’m pretty much an extreme.
“I love being creative, different kinds of makeup and hair. I’m trying to do another photo shoot again so my website will look different. I love funky ideas, trying to do something different next year for the Australian Open. Fashion is interesting for me. I kind of go by my moods. I’m big on comfort, even if I’m in heels. I’m super picky. It needs to be comfortable. Favorite designers? I don’t know. Alexander McQueen is one of my favorites. I love the creative stuff, but you can’t wear that everyday. I love couture stuff. I love going to boutiques. I love shopping in New York City, finding stuff you don’t normally find. It just interests me where it’ll take me. Obviously, I haven’t been to fashion school. For me, right now, fashion is just for fun.”
Unlike Lady Gaga, who idolized Madonna and David Bowie growing up, Mattek-Sands was a fan of sports heroes. “I’d love to meet Brett Favre! He’s always been an athletic idol of mine. I had posters of him growing up.”
“I’m actually a huge country fan,” Mattek-Sands says about her musical tastes. “My husband got me into country. I’m kind of obsessed with Kenny Chesney’s CD. Eric Church is one of my favorites. I like a lot of stuff — techno, R&B — but country is my favorite. My husband can actually sing country. He’s got a good country voice.”
She doesn’t know much about the rest of her life, calling herself a “bad planner,” but sometime around age 30 she and her husband want to “reevaluate” their lives. They might have a family or do something else. One day, she might like to have a fashion line. For now and as long as she is healthy, she says, Mattek-Sands wants to heal, play her best tennis when she returns and tonight, eat dinner with her in-laws.
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