Tennis

Mattek-Sands gives US promise on clay

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Matt Cronin

Matt Cronin is a senior editor at Inside Tennis magazine and the co-owner of the award-winning TennisReporters.net.

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Bethanie Mattek-Sands likes to compare herself to the pop star Lady Gaga, and with her unconventional dress and flair for the dramatic on court and off, it makes sense. Both have their artistic sides, with Gaga wowing sold-out crowds with her high-energy tunes and zany outfits, and Mattek fist-pumping her way to victory inside the white lines of a tennis court while wearing eye black and knee high socks.

 

"I like her music a lot and I heard some acoustic versions recently and I like those even more than some of her dance techno stuff," Mattek-Sands told FOXSports.com from Madrid. "She's not afraid to be whatever she wants to be and she takes entertainment another few steps, from what she wears to what she says and she's got talent. Everyone wants to know what she's going to wear next, whether it's lace all over her face or the meat dress. That's pretty cool, but I don't think I can get away with meat on the tennis court."

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Lady Gaga is working hard to make sure that she doesn't end up as a flash-in-the-pan performer and become just another of the dozens of pretty pop stars who lose relevance after one gold album. Mattek-Sands is fighting a similar battle as she is trying to convert herself into a player to be feared on the WTA Tour. She appreciates how Gaga helps design her own outfits, writes her own songs, sings and plays the piano. She sees Gaga as having more substance than style which is exactly how she sees herself.

"Fashion and all that is part of my personality and what I can get away with on court is too," Mattek-Sands said. "Being relaxed and confident in myself helps me play better anyway, but my number one priority is tennis and how well I do on court."

After the 26-year-old stunned two former French Open champions, Ana Ivanovic and Francesca Schiavone, back-to-back in Madrid, the Arizona resident will be just off her career-high ranking of No. 37 when the rankings are released on Monday. Somewhat sadly on Friday, she was unable to eclipse her highest ranking when she went down to China's Na Li in the quarterfinals 6-4, 3-6, 6-4. Before this week, Mattek-Sands had been 1-16 against top 10 players, with her only win coming against Marion Bartoli at 2008 Wimbledon. While the loss to Li stung, the week convinced her that she could be a force on dirt.

"I actually can hit a super heavy ball on clay and I can still come to net," she said. "I was winning a lot of forehand crosscourt rallies against Schiavone and it gives me confidence to know that if I can't get to net, my heavy groundstrokes are taking me through. The ball can sit up and if someone hits a kick serve and she pauses a little bit and it's in my strike zone, it's like 'goodbye'."

While Mattek-Sands is more known to casual sports fans as an offbeat tennis fashionista, she is a talented and ambitious player. She did not break out in a big way as a teenager and is somewhat of late-bloomer, perhaps because it took her a while to firm up her attacking game. She has a fairly strong serve, a quick-fisted return, is willing to serve and volley, and will take risks off the ground off both her forehand and backhand side. She's best when she moving forward, but also when she's willing to grind and not take unnecessary risks on big points.

"The biggest thing now is I'm playing free and when I lost first round in Estoril I sat down with my coach [Adam Altschuler] and wrote down what my game is, the part of it that doesn't change no matter what," she said. "Strategy changes and so do conditions, but my core game plan shouldn't and I came to Madrid and I decided to stick with it no matter what. Trusting myself was a big thing and being healthy again is important too as I'm moving better. My defense has been pretty good and that's helped because I can convert it to offense. My first shot, whether it's my serve or return and then the second ball, I'm going to try and take it on the rise [and start to dictate] and that's my game on clay, grass, hard, whatever."

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Mattek-Sands did not even start to make herself relevant on the tour until 2006 when she reached two quarterfinals, and she didn't crack top 100 for the first time until 2007. In 2008, she finished in the top 40 for the first time, but in 2009 she began to feel the effects of a left hip injury — and it wasn't until the middle of 2010 when she began to get back on track again.

"Even when I was 18 and 19 I was struggling with knee and ankle injuries," she said. "Back then I didn't have enough direction. Now I have strategies in my back pocket. Back then I had moments of greatness in my matches, but if I missed a couple points I'd question myself. You can't question yourself. You watch Serena [Williams] and she could have 100 unforced errors and she doesn't question herself. I never doubted that I could be great, it was just a matter of putting it together."

Mattek-Sands has won nine doubles titles, but no singles titles, reaching the singles final of three events — including early this year at Hobart. Due to the absence of the Williams sisters, she has become a huge part of the US Fed Cup team and has shown some leadership qualities with the teenagers around, as well as scoring some critical wins for captain Mary Joe Fernandez.

This year has been typical of Mattek's career, reaching the Hobart final, then qualifying for the Australian Open and losing a marathon three-setter in the first round. She then upset Andrea Petkovic to reach the semis of the Paris Indoors, but was overwhelmed by Petra Kvitova. She lost a three-setter to Peng Shuai at Dubai, a three-setter to Shahar Peer at Indian Wells and a tough two-setter to No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki in Miami. Her hip and back began to hurt her again at the Charleston tournament and she unfortunately had to pull out of the US Fed Cup tie against Germany. She then lost the three-setter in Estoril, but in Madrid she changed her mindset and was more proactive and reactive.

With Serena Williams having been out of action since 2010 Wimbledon due to injuries and illness and Venus only having played two tournaments since then due to injuries, Mattek-Sands has the distinction of being America's top player and with that comes a certain amount of responsibility. But Mattek-Sands doesn't feel like a top anything, at least not yet.

"I won't even consider I'm the best American until I'm there," she said. "My goal is to get into the top 10 and the US has had a great history of having Grand Slam champs, No. 1 players, top 5 players and top 10 players. Those are big shoes to fill but, it's not possible. But beating Schiavone on red clay was a pretty big accomplishment for me and gave me a lot of confidence. If I play my best, I can beat anybody."

Next week, Mattek-Sands will contest the Italian Open, and if she reaches the quarters she'll have a real chance to grab herself a seeding at the French Open, which would be the first time that she's been seeded at a major. Given how hard to she had to struggle just to come back from her hip injuries that would be reason to smile. Who knows, if the moment takes her, she might just put on a poker face and dance on court Gaga style.

"That was one of my goals at the start of the year to be seeded at a Slam, and would be big mile-marker for me in my career," she said.

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