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Sunday, May 22, 2011
More than a fashion statement

By Greg Garber
ESPN.com

PARIS -- The website, like its subject, is, well, a little different, decidedly dark.

OK, a lot different.

The introduction features an ominous storm cloud, looming behind an arresting Lady Gaga-esque pose and a variety of gothic looks. Tattoos play a prominent role. The guy who runs the WTA website calls www.bmattek.com the "best site of any professional tennis player -- period."

Bethanie Mattek-Sands always has been ahead (or was it delightfully behind?) the fashion curve. Although she used to make headlines for her biker-inspired outfits -- who else gives you tube socks to the knees and football eye-black? -- her tennis was more pedestrian.

"If you had asked people a few years ago who she was, they'd say, 'The girl with the high socks and face paint," her husband, Justin Sands, said on Sunday. "They didn't know her name, but even though they ripped her fashion, they knew her brand. Now, it's starting to be both.

"She's always been different, and tennis needs that kind of stuff. Right now, she's at the Malcolm Gladwell tipping point. She's getting very, very close to where she wants to be."

That would be in the top 10. At the relatively advanced age of 26, Mattek-Sands currently is at a career high of No. 34. This is significant because she's the No. 1-ranked American woman here at Roland Garros and on the verge of becoming the No. 1-ranked U.S. woman, period. That's right, by the time Wimbledon winds down, she has a good chance to pull ahead of the injured Serena and Venus Williams, who presently sit at Nos. 17 and 30, respectively.

"It'd be huge," Mattek-Sands said on Sunday. "But when you talk about American tennis, being the No. 1 player, I don't think you're the No. 1 player until you reach the top 10."

Bethanie Mattek-Sands
Bethanie Mattek-Sands' tennis game is starting to garner as much attention as her attire.

She said this after mounting a serious comeback against Spaniard Arantxa Parra Santonja. Mattek-Sands trailed a set and a break, but found her inner grit and ran off with the 1-hour, 55-minute match 2-6, 7-6 (6), 6-3.

Mattek-Sands always has gone against the grain and it is no different in Paris. There were 17 Americans in the men's and women's draw to start the tournament, and it took only 77 minutes for the first one to exit -- wild card Irina Falconi lost to Gisela Dulko 6-3, 6-4. Later, Robert Kendrick would depart.

At dusk, fellow American Varvara Lepchenko upset No. 18 seed Flavia Pennetta in a rousing match, 6-3, 2-6, 6-3, which was only two minutes shy of two hours. Pennetta saved four match points. Lepchenko now meets Mattek-Sands in an all-American second-round match.

Most Americans seem to have an allergic reaction to the red clay at Roland Garros, like an aversion to shellfish, but there's a more than reasonable chance that Mattek-Sands will be the last one standing. She came in with the most European clay-court wins this year (four) and she seems to thrive here.

After reaching the semifinals at the Paris indoor event back in February, she's now a stout 4-1 in the City of Light. And that doesn't include her perfect 4-0 doubles mark; she and partner Meghan Shaughnessy won the title. They also reached the quarterfinals of the Australian Open and the finals at Indian Wells and Charleston.

Mattek-Sand's biggest fan is her husband, a former defensive lineman at Albany. He himself sports formidable tattoos on his sturdy forearms and wears an earring. He defends his wife against any and all criticism, whether it's a prominent tennis writer (who shall remain nameless) or a random fan in Australia, whom he says he converted.

Mattek-Sands says she is better known in Europe than in her current hometown of Phoenix.

"A lot of these girls have entire countries behind them," Mattek-Sands said. "In the United States, with all the athletic heroes we have, it's harder to get any attention. We can't get the local [Phoenix] paper to write a story. They've got two of the best doubles players in the world living there, and you'd never know it. It's pretty frustrating."

One way Mattek-Sands expresses herself is in her tattoos.

A bevy of buzzing bees, including a regal queen, grace her right wrist; a nod to her nickname, "Killer B." Three pink water lilies and purple hepatica, symbolizing enlightenment, are on the inside of her right bicep. The plan, going forward, is to link the two with a third piece. And fans of ink will be thrilled to know that English master Louis Molloy -- the artist responsible for the celebrated angel tattoo on David Beckham's back -- will create a piece on Mattek-Sands' left thigh before Wimbledon for the WTA's Xperia Hot Shots series.

Alex Noble, Lady's Gaga's fashion designer, will create a piece of couture fashion for Mattek-Sands to wear at the Wimbledon players' party, consisting only of tennis materials -- strings, balls, grommets, etc.

But beyond the style, there is now an undeniable substance in Mattek's game. A few weeks ago in Madrid, she beat two former champions at Roland Garros, Ana Ivanovic and the reigning titleholder, Francesca Schiavone. The win against Schiavone was her first against a player ranked among the top five.

"I feel like an official dirt-baller!" she wrote in her ongoing blog for USA Today.

Her enthusiasm was warranted, for in the previous tournament in Estoril, Portugal, she had lost in the first round to Monica Niculescu, a player she felt she should have beaten. She sat down and defined her game, wrote the key points down on paper:

• Play an aggressive game.
• Look to take the ball early and take time away from the opponent.
• Come to net and cut down the angles.

"It took me awhile," Mattek-Sands said. "I'm committed to playing this way -- even when I'm missing some shots. I really believe in my game now.

"I'm sticking with my core."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.