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By Richard Pagliaro | Tuesday, July 28, 2020

 
Bethanie Mattek-Sands

"Doubles for me is all about energy and chemistry," says Bethanie Mattek-Sands.

Photo credit: World TeamTennis

Smash spirit bubbled within Bethanie Mattek-Sands before she began this unique World TeamTennis season.

Happy hour comes every minute the 35-year-old Mattek-Sands steps on court.

More: Agnieszka Radwanska Gives Birth

Partnering former Wimbledon finalist Genie Bouchard, an energized Mattek-Sands has helped the Chicago Smash light it up in the expansion franchise’s World TeamTennis debut season at the Greenbrier this month.

Genie Bouchard
Photo credit: World TeamTennis

Coach Kamau Murray’s squad, which features 2017 US Open champion Sloane Stephens, Rajeev Ram, Evan King and Brandon Nakashima, has locked up one of four WTT playoff spots. There’s more than bragging rights—and match play in preparation for the US Open at stake—the team that hoists the King trophy awarded to the league champion on Sunday will split a bonus prize of $500,000.

Former world No. 1 doubles player Mattek-Sands plays tennis with the passion of one who’s both inspired and intoxicated by the competition and can’t get enough of either buzz.

Mattek-Sands knows what it’s like to suffer horrific injury in a the space of a split step—and how to sustain a positive spirit on the long journey back to the pro circuit.

At the 2017 Roland Garros, Mattek-Sands and Lucie Safarova swept Aussies Ashleigh Barty and Casey Dellacqua, 6-2, 6-1, to claim their fifth major title.

The top seeds won 12 of 13 sets en route to their third major title.

They were aiming to win Wimbledon and complete the career doubles Grand Slam when Mattek-Sands slipped split-stepping and crumpled to the court suffering a gruesome knee injury, including dislocating her patella and rupturing her patella tendon.

Following multiple surgeries and arduous rehab, Mattek-Sands has made an inspired return playing her familiar brand of dynamic all-court tennis predicated on sharp court sense, her skill hitting the ball on the rise and the fine feel of a pick pocket she exhibits closing at net.

Tennis Express

Last September, after successfully defending her US Open mixed doubles title with Jamie Murray, Mattek-Sands reflected on her road back to major success—and how her gratitude for the game grew deeper during her injury-imposed absence.

“I've been through it before. I've been through worse,” Mattek-Sands said. “I was going to keep my head up. I knew I was going to be back out on the court. When, I didn't know…

“It's a journey. That's why I enjoy these moments so much: you don't know what's going to happen next week, next year. I fell in love with tennis again, so I appreciate the competition, I appreciate the matches.”

We caught up with the Tennis United host for this interview as the Chicago Smash pursue the WTT championship.

Mattek-Sands talks her successful WTT partnership with Bouchard, essential qualities for doubles partners, disappointment with the USTA decision to cancel the US Open mixed doubles event, her dream doubles partner and silver linings tennis can create amid a shortened 2020 season clouded by Coronavirus.

Tennis Now: Watching the WTT on TV the tennis has been exciting. What’s the vibe and atmosphere like for you actually being there and what’s your takeaway from this unique season?

Bethanie Mattek-Sands: Chicago Smash, what a team. I feel we’ve all been getting along great pulling each other through our matches.

It’s been interesting because I feel like every match you have players who are on fire. We’re all cheering each other and keeping it close. I think it’s great energy. Our teammates are ball kids standing at the back fence with the coach. I think this World TeamTennis season offers a really cool vibe and awesome team atmosphere that tennis doesn’t usually have.


We’ve been having a lot of fun. Obviously, we’ve been playing some good tennis. We had a tough [loss] today, but I’m really, really pumped about this. I’m really enjoying that it’s a true team sport.

TN: You and Genie Bouchard have been a strong team for Chicago. You’ve won partnering many different players. What makes a great teammate? What qualities do you look for and value in a partner? And what qualities do you try to bring to the table both with Genie and in general?

Bethanie Mattek-Sands: Doubles for me is all about energy and chemistry. I’ve been lucky to play doubles with a lot of good friends of mine—players that I would call friends off the court.

And it really comes down to figuring out what your strengths are. Where is Genie the strongest? Where am I the strongest? What’s our strongest position?

Other than that, especially in this World TeamTennis format, it’s really about bringing energy. Because the momentum can shift point-by-point and you have fast points. You let eight points go by and all of a sudden you’re down two zero in a five-game set.

Genie has brought the energy to every match we play. We’ve mixed up our tactics—we have her at net, we’re doing I formation—so we’re really mixing it up. It’s really a matter of working out the tactics that can make everyone play their best shots out there.

That’s kind of my secret with whoever I play with—whether they’re a great volleyer or great baseliner—sometimes they serve stronger, others are better at returns. We just figure out where everyone’s best, what’s their strength and play to it.



TN: You’ve won just about every Grand Slam and the Olympic mixed doubles gold with Jack Sock. What’s the toughest tournament to win and why?

Bethanie Mattek-Sands: I don’t have Wimbledon yet—that’s the one I’m missing.

The toughest one to win? It depends. For me, I’m used to playing on all surfaces. I feel my game transitions well from surface to surface. Just because I love fast hard courts playing doubles doesn’t mean I don’t love clay because I’ve done really well at French Open and clay court events.

Doubles, for me, comes down to communication and energy. When we talk about the players I’ve won titles with whether it’s Lucie [Safarova], Jamie Murray, Jack Sock in the Olympics, we were just really pumped to be out there playing. Our communication—whether we were up or down—was always there.

I think that’s sometimes the difference in these tight matches. When you start seeing a team not communicating well or their body language goes down, it’s little things that that you look for.

I feel like that’s something we can control as a pair. Everyone who I’ve played with—it doesn’t matter if we’re making mistakes, if we’re down or if we’re up—you keep the energy high and you always give yourself a chance at winning a match.

TN: Have you decided who you will partner at the US Open? Do you think there’s any chance the USTA will bring the mixed doubles back given they did bring back the wheelchair event after axing it and also mixed is popular at the Open with people like you and Hingis winning in recent years.

Bethanie Mattek-Sands: Seriously, I was extremely bummed when they announced that they would not be holding the mixed competition this year.

Obviously, I won the last two years with Jamie [Murray]. I was really looking forward to it. Plus, you only play it four times a year and it’s such high entertainment value.

In what other sport do you see men and women competing on an equal playing field? At the end of the day, look at the highlights and what it is as a competition. You have a guy and a girl working together playing against another guy and another girl.



When you break it down it’s really interesting tactics. You’re sometimes picking on one, then you’re picking on the other. No other sport does it. So I was really bummed by that decision.

Personally, I think we should play mixed doubles more often. That’s why I love here in World TeamTennis it’s part of the event. You’re seeing the best of the game. You’re seeing singles highlights, you’re seeing doubles highlights and you’re seeing mixed doubles highlights. So you’re getting the best of the tennis product in World TeamTennis. And it’s exactly what I think we should be offering more in our week-to-week events.

TN: You took a major negative—the horrific knee injury you suffered at Wimbledon that looked catastrophic—and turned it into a tremendous positive by coming back. And coming back to be a Grand Slam champion again. Tennis—and sport—has experienced a major negative with Coronavirus. How can it turn this into a positive? What do you see as potential silver lining?

Bethanie Mattek-Sands: We’re in the same position as a lot of people—whether they’re in sport or not. There are so many things that are outside our control.

I think the first step is recognize: What’s in our control and what’s out of our control?

Personally, I think this is an amazing time for tennis to analyze what do our fans want? How can we create the best tennis tour possible? What scoring system can we use? What schedule will be best for the sport? How can we best market tennis on TV and on streaming?

I just think this is such an amazing opportunity to huddle up and re-think what we’re doing and talk about [possible changes]. Even going into 2021 we’re not exactly sure which tournaments are going to be able to keep going and which ones aren’t.

One of the best things about tennis is it’s so international, but that’s also what’s challenging us a little bit now. Because week to week we’re going from country to country and when you have quarantines, when you have travel bans—a lot of that stuff is out of your control.

So I really think that that silver lining out of this is if we can come together, the Tours and the tournaments, and figure out how we can keep tennis, the amazing sport that it is, [rolling]. Keep our amazing fans that we have now and try to attract new fans. How do we make it more exciting for fans?

I know tennis is a little slow to change. Maybe now is the time we test some things out, try new things, and see what works.



TN: After your injury, you were able to take a step back, observe the game through a different lens as an ESPN analyst. Is there anything you learned from either your work as a tennis commentator—or just chatting with other champions on your show—that you’ve taken and applied to your playing? Obviously, you always had sharp court sense to play all court tennis. Did commentary help you see the game in a different way? Give you a different perspective?

Bethanie Mattek-Sands: Yes, it did. You know what, while I was doing commentary I was watching a lot of video and a lot of matches every day.

I think describing some of the scenarios out loud for fans helped me sort of input into my own mind strategy I would play against certain players. You start to see patterns develop. You start seeing momentum shifts.

Those are things when you’re on the court, you have a sense of them. It’s another thing to be watching it and seeing it from the commentary spot as the match progresses. So I’ve definitely carried that side of it onto the court with me now.

I love chatting with all the great champions we’ve had and my peers on Tennis United and Tennis Channel and ESPN. For me, it’s easy to talk about the sport. I love tennis. I have an appreciation for the sport. I want to bring the energy because I think fans deserve to know how tough the sport is, how amazing these athletes are and how exciting it is to play. That’s really what I want to come across when I’m commentating.

TN: Last question, if you could pick any dream doubles partner in history—at their peak and you at your peak—who would you pick as your partner?

Also, I’ve always been told you were a very high level athlete in other sports growing up before you moved to Florida to focus solely on tennis. You seem pretty experimental and open about trying stuff. With that in mind: what other sport would you like to pursue when your tennis playing days are done?



Bethanie Mattek-Sands: So you’re right. I grew up playing all different kinds of sports. I was doing soccer, basketball, volleyball, track and field. I love ping pong. I have a badminton court set up in my backyard right now. I love squash. And I’m not saying I’m amazing at any of these. Realistically, I can do them. I can do them.

So something I’d love to pick up post career? I’d have to say something like snow boarding or skiing. Snowboarding is something I’ve never done even though I grew up in Minnesota and Wisconsin in the snow. I’ve ice skated, I’ve played hockey. I’ve played roller hockey, but I’ve never skied. So I’m saving that for post career, but I’ve been told I will love it.

I love anything competitive. I have Cornhole set up in our backyard. I have darts. You name it, I just love it. I’m super competitive. I’m one of those people when you give me an activity I’m gonna learn the ins and outs.

I feel like I’m pretty quick at learning tactics when someone gives you tactical cues. I feel like as adults we almost get scared to try new things because we don’t want to be bad at it. Trust me, I don’t ever want to be bad at anything but at some point you gotta try it. You’ve got to go out there and try something new and have fun with it.



TN: Last question, your dream doubles partner. Who are you picking?

Bethanie Mattek-Sands: Oh, man. Anybody in tennis history?

TN: Anybody. Woman or man. Like you partnered Isner as a great team in Homan Cup and you won the gold with Sock.

Bethanie Mattek-Sands: Yeah. I’m not gonna lie: it’s awesome to play with John. Playing with that serve behind you all the time, John makes you look like a god at the net [laughs].

I mean anyone in history… that’s a really challenging question. You look at Martina Hingis, she came back and played phenomenal. I played against her a few times. And I would have loved to have played with her.

I think Martina is so smart on the court. Martina has such great court awareness, but she was playing with one of my best buddies, Sania Mirza, for pretty much the whole time she was back. And I was playing with Lucie.

Who else in history? Growing up, my idol was Monica Seles. I don’t think she played a lot of doubles—I’m not sure I’ll have to look it up. But I feel I play pretty well with singles players ripping from the back.

I feel like I would have been like “Monica, you just rip the shit out of the ball” and I feel like we would have been a pretty good team. I’m also biased because Monica Seles was one of the first professional players I got to meet when I was young. And Monica is one of the reasons I pursued tennis so I feel like that would probably be my pick, for sure.


 

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