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Friday, September 7, 2012
Tennis pros lean on partners

By Jane McManus

Bethanie Mattek-Sands
Bethanie Mattek-Sands' husband, Justin Sands, does everything short of hitting the shots himself to help her career.

NEW YORK -- Justin Sands can be found on the grounds of just about every tennis tournament on the WTA Tour, whether it's in the U.S., Australia, Asia or Europe. He may be in a player box tense with emotion or on his cell phone arranging travel plans for his wife: player Bethanie Mattek-Sands.

Sands is a muscular guy, a former football player at the University of Albany. He thought he would be the last of his friends to marry, but he ended up being the first in 2008 when he fell in love with Bethanie. They share a love of fast cars and target shooting, so the adventure suits him. Especially since Mattek-Sands' job, which is in a different city each event, doesn't allow for a conventional two-income household.

"I never thought I'd be 25, 26 and I'd be on the women's tour," Sands said.

But he does it to allow Mattek-Sands to focus on training. In the meantime, he runs an insurance business from his cell phone and a U.S.-based office, and spends the balance of his time arranging hotel rooms, figuring out the family finances and being "Team Sherpa," he joked.

Kim Clijsters and Jada Lynch
Kim Clijsters celebrates with daughter Jada Lynch after winning the U.S. Open in 2010.

"I basically wear every hat except actually getting out on the court," Sands said.

Being a tour spouse like Sands means being on board with making your family work from the road. The U.S. Open has been a family-friendly event this year -- from Kim Clijsters talking about how she made being on tour with her daughter, Jada, work with help from her husband, Brian Lynch, to James Blake discussing how traveling with his fiancée, Emily Snider, and newborn daughter, Riley, has meant changes.

"Whenever I get the chance, I try to sleep," Blake said. "That's important out here on tour. You need to be rested. You need to be able to be at your best. If you're on four or five hours of sleep, like a lot of first-time parents, I've got no chance. I couldn't be luckier that my fiancée does a lot of the nighttime stuff. She does everything she can not to wake me."

Whether it's waiting to have another child or helping your wife retire with grace -- which is exactly what Lynch has done for Clijsters -- having a spouse who understands the sacrifices is key to survival on tour.

"Having the support system that she had around her, I think that was really tremendous for her," Lynch said of Clijsters. "She's always had me, Jada, her team behind her, which always made it easier for her to concentrate on what she had to do."

Like Lynch, who played professional basketball in Belgium, having an athletic background helps Sands understand what his wife needs on the road, and it helps him appreciate her commitment and success.

"I'm jealous of the fact she gets to dominate on the world stage," Sands said. "In a good way, not in a negative way. I enjoy the fact that she can be out there and compete every day and do what she loves."

It is an insulated lifestyle. When the wins come in bunches, it can be easy. But when an injury keeps a player from performing well, it can be tough. Last year, Mattek-Sands struggled with injuries, and when she was hurting, it caused some tension.

"It is hard, you share the ups and downs, and unfortunately on some of the downs you take a little abuse sometimes," Sands said. "But it's her livelihood. I feel all that for her. Even on Sunday [when Mattek-Sands lost at the U.S. Open], I was gutted for her even though it's a doubles match."

And that ultimately is the best perk: that Sands and his wife share everything, from emotion to travel to wins and losses.

"That was the commitment I made for her," Sands said.