Mattek-Sands' style yields dividends
In early August, Justin Sands packed the Ford F-350 for a cross-country trip. "It's essentially a monster truck," he said. One of his and wife Bethanie Mattek-Sands' smaller cars, like the custom 1966 Mustang, wouldn't work for the 36-hour trip between their house in Phoenix and Toronto.
The point was to get their 135-pound Boerboel mastiff to Bethanie, who was playing tennis at the Rogers Cup.
The couple had been separated from their dog, Ruger, during tennis' long European season and they missed him. So Justin drove straight through with the dog, pulling over to grab a few hours of sleep once or twice. But once he got to Bethanie, the three were home again.
"We all slept in the bed," she said, and laughed.
For Justin and Bethanie, an unconventional traveling family, almost every decision is off the menu. Bethanie's sport might require a curtsy on occasion, but she's more comfortable at a shooting range near her home blowing off steam and blowing up targets.
Her refusal to play along with convention is paying off. This year, the American is ranked No. 52 and playing some of the best singles tennis of her career. At 28 years old, hitting what has traditionally been middle age as a player, Bethanie has gotten stronger and smarter because of a scientific approach to training and a radical change to her diet. This year she will play deeper into the season than her body has ever allowed. Her next test? The US Open in New York.
In April, she reached the semifinals in Stuttgart. A few weeks later, she defeated No. 6 seed Li Na at the French Open and reached the fourth round. After that win, Bethanie decided to drop doubles -- where she has 12 WTA titles -- and focus on singles, where she has never won a title. Coming off injuries that nearly ended her career, she figures now is the time.
"I want to put all my focus on it and see where I can go with it," she said.
Off the beaten path
This year at Wimbledon, Bethanie was chosen to debut Google's cutting-edge technology Google Glass. It was just another piece of her scientific approach to the game. Just before the tournament began, she quietly went to the company's headquarters in New York to pick up the device. A few days later, she dyed her hair a royal blue that cascaded into turquoise, green and yellow.
She has always gotten attention for her knee-high football socks and nontraditional clothing, in part because her singles results were more solid than stellar. She has hung around the top 75 for most of her career, and found better results on the doubles court, most recently with her partner and best friend on tour, Sania Mirza.
Maybe neon was the way she got noticed, but her unusual style also raised eyebrows in tennis -- a sport where young women are often molded into competitors before they have grown up enough to find their own voice.
Somehow, Bethanie avoided being stamped into the ponytailed standard despite moving to Florida at age 12 to attend the Chris Evert Tennis Academy. She didn't listen to her mother, Heidi, too closely when she'd say in that Midwestern accent, "Oh Bethanie, you have such beautiful naturally blond hair." She married Justin at 23, before anyone really got a chance to approve her choice, and wore a black dress to her own wedding.
Her folks weren't crazy about it at the time -- who decides to get married after three dates? -- but they've come around. Tim and Heidi Mattek, who moved the family of six from Wisconsin to Florida for Bethanie's tennis, have come to respect their daughter's judgment.
"She has a history of making good decisions," her dad said.
At times, it took a little help from her friends.
Bethanie arrived at her new middle school and didn't know a soul. Helena Hines, who moved with her family from Brazil and spoke only Portuguese, was in the same boat. Despite the language barrier, Bethanie and Hines quickly bonded over their outsider status.
"It was tough," Hines said. "Boca Raton is a tough town to meet people. It's a ritzy area, so kids can be a little spoiled. We went to a Christian school and the groups were already established. Bethanie probably could've fit in with any group, but she was with me instead."
Later in high school, the pair skipped to spend an entire day at the beach. The only reason they got caught was that Hines insisted on trying to sneak back into the school building to get homework she'd forgotten.
Maybe trading school for the beach wasn't the greatest decision, but they learned their lesson.
"I look at her now and it all makes sense," Hines said. "She was always confident. She didn't need to be part of the cool clique. Now as a woman and a tennis player, she doesn't need that approval."
Tim Mattek saw something in his daughter early on.
He held 3-year-old Bethanie in his arms and he can't remember what it was that set her off, but she didn't want to be held. "No," she said firmly. It wasn't defiance, it wasn't a tantrum; Tim recognized, as he looked into her eyes, that his little girl was imbued with a unique determination.
Trainer Jay Schroeder noticed it as well, the first time Bethanie walked into his gym. He liked her, but he didn't have any room for new clients, and she hadn't been off the charts on some of the tests. At the end, Schroeder said he wanted her to arm-wrestle some of the other guys working out and picked a football player.
Bethanie didn't flinch. She didn't win, either, but Schroeder got a glimpse of the same stuff Tim Mattek had noticed years earlier.
"We work with a lot of professional athletes, and a lot of people get satisfied," Schroeder said. "Bethanie is unique in this: I don't know if she'll ever be satisfied."
After reaching a career-high ranking of 30 in 2011, Mattek-Sands had to wrestle with whether she wanted to work to come back from shoulder and foot injuries in sequence. She discussed it with Justin.
"You go through a moment where you feel sorry for yourself," Bethanie said. "When there's no answer, there's no answer."
She had come back from hip surgery in 2008, but this felt different. Her shoulder and foot didn't keep her from playing, but they did keep her from practicing the way she wanted. She saw younger players staying on the court for hours, something her body wouldn't let her do.
"When I was injured I had to make up my mind if I was going to play a match or if I was going to practice," Bethanie said. "There were a lot of times where I wasn't able to get on the court and work on the things I wanted to work on. Even in my fitness I had to decide, 'Do I want to feel good today or do I want to improve?'"
Finding a way
A few things made a big difference. Dr. Malcolm Conway was able to craft a plan to heal her using myofascial techniques -- involving stretching and resistance to the affected muscle -- and ARPwave, an electrical therapy. Both were non-surgical methods, and Bethanie responded well.
She and her coach, Adam Altschuler, worked on shortening her service motion to compensate for her injured foot. It worked so well she continued using the motion after she healed.
"Pound for pound, I don't think I've ever met somebody tougher or stronger," Conway said.
The last component was diet. Last year, Bethanie discovered she had a number of food allergies. Despite being a confessed foodie, she stopped consuming coffee, eggs, cow's milk, wheat and roots and plants that make food more flavorful, like garlic and ginger. She's the one at the table who cross-examines the waiter about the menu.
Bethanie's mom, Heidi, makes the same birthday cake for all four kids every year. It's made of store-bought chocolate wafers with a layer of whipped cream in between that's chilled in the fridge until it's set.
"It's scrumptious," Heidi said.
But this year, because of Bethanie's allergies, it wasn't on the menu. Not even on her birthday. So Heidi tracked down a recipe for the wafers and made the dish from scratch, and the family tradition was intact. She made the new version for Justin's birthday, too.
"I think just feeling good gives her confidence out there," Heidi said. "She would have good results when she was feeling bad, but she just couldn't hold onto them."
Physically, mentally, skill-wise, strategy-wise ... it’s been the most consistent as I’ve been in my entire career.Bethanie Mattek-Sands
Feeling better than she has in years, Bethanie doesn't have to compromise her training schedule. She can practice and recover the way she and Altschuler plan it.
"This year I haven't had to make so many of those decisions because I've been able to do everything in moderation," Bethanie said. "And really every day improve my level in all areas -- physically, mentally, skill-wise, strategy-wise -- and it's been the most consistent as I've been in my entire career."
Through it all, Justin has been there with the dog or a shoulder, whatever Bethanie needs. On late nights after a loss, being a husband on tour might seem like being directly in the path of a hurricane.
"You have to stay so intense for so long, and the intensity gets worse and worse as they get better and better," he said.
But he wanted it that way. He played football for the University of Albany, and when the couple discussed marriage he made it clear he didn't want to stay home while she traveled. He has an insurance business that he takes on the road.
"I don't think we'll ever run out of things to say to each other," he said.
Their relationship is unconventional, at times combustible, but it is rarely boring.
"He's my best friend and he's there whether I win or lose," Bethanie said. "I don't know if I'd enjoy tennis as much if I were alone on tour."
Her results have been mixed since the French Open. In three main draws, she's won one match. The US Open, which begins next week, will be a test. Will she be able reach a personal Grand Slam best like at the French? Or exit in the first round like at Wimbledon?
"She is a special person," Altschuler said. "She doesn't think she's achieved anything yet. She goes to sleep every night saying, 'I can achieve so much more, and I'm going to.'"
Either way, Bethanie expects to be healthy enough to play the slate of tournaments in Asia for the first time in her career.
"For me, to say I've been playing since January," she said, "I've already won this year."