Bethanie bounces back

Comeback queen and defending Roland-Garros doubles champ talks injury and recovery over chicken salad.

Bethanie Mattek-Sands et son mari Justin sur le court Philippe-Chatrier, entraînement / practice Roland-Garros 2018©Corinne Dubreuil / FFT
 - Kate Battersby

Bethanie Mattek-Sands sits down for her chat with carrying a large bowl of chicken salad, apologising for eating on the run. It is just a couple of hours after her 6-4 6-3 first-round dismissal of Johanna Larsson here, and she is glowing with happiness for more reasons than one.

There is the win of course – Larsson is fresh from capturing the Nuremberg crown – but more significantly, she is breathing the heady air of Grand Slam tennis for the first time since the truly horrifying knee injury she sustained at Wimbledon last year.

Against Sorana Cirstea, Mattek-Sands was attempting to rush the net when her right knee buckled during a split-step, and she dislocated her kneecap. Her agonised cries left no one in any doubt of the horrific pain, not least her husband Justin (pictured with her above), who rushed from his seat courtside to comfort her where she fell. Five days later in New York she had surgery on a torn patella tendon, and began the long recovery which eventually saw her compete again for the first time just two months ago in Miami.

“I am really happy with that win [over Larsson],” smiled Mattek-Sands, 33. “Every week I’m feeling big improvements in how the knee is recovering. After surgery, I had to keep my leg straight for six weeks. I couldn’t move my leg by myself – someone else had to move it for me – or go to the bathroom by myself. It was humbling. It made me appreciate just being able to walk.

Bethanie Mattek-Sands, Lucie Safarova, double, vainqueurs, winners, Roland-Garros 2017©FFT

“But because I couldn’t change it, I realised very fast that I had to enjoy the journey back. So much of tennis life is training, practice, waiting for matches. The championship moments are few and far between. I learned to appreciate every moment, no matter how small the gain. So in rehab, when my entire day’s training comprised bending my knee a couple of degrees, I had to make that a mental win, rather than being frustrated.”

Husband Justin, sitting nearby in typical unobtrusive support, nods at her recollections. Married 10 years this coming November, his own experience of his wife’s injury brought its own fallout.

“Seeing her in so much pain, the feeling of helplessness was terrible,” he recalls. “Nothing I could say in that moment was going to make it any better for her. It was very difficult emotionally afterwards, very traumatic. I was so afraid of it happening again to her that I really struggled during the first two tournaments of her return – I was afraid for her.”

Mattek-Sands herself, however, had no doubts.

“I was confident or I wouldn’t have played. I did a lot of mental preparation before coming back so that I would not be afraid, and instead would completely trust my knee to stand up to the tests of playing.”

Next up for her in the singles here is the 2014 semi-finalist Andrea Petkovic, who saw off French favourite Kristina Mladenovic in the first round. But of course Mattek-Sands is also the defending doubles champion here, although she and Lucie Safarova – a combination with five Grand Slam titles together – will not pair up this time. Instead Mattek-Sands is with current world doubles No.1 Latisha Chan while Safarova is alongside Svetlana Kuznetsova.

“It’s only because Lucie has also been out, with the bacterial infection she had after the US Open,” explains Mattek-Sands. “That absolutely wiped her out for months, and at the point when I was trying to schedule tournaments again, she still wasn’t sure if she could play. But we’re big goofballs together, and we will definitely be back together again.

“Latisha’s a great player obviously, and also a really nice girl – I like playing with friends who I get along with off the court. It’s one of the reasons Lucie and I did so well.”

Interestingly, Mattek-Sands is playing doubles under her WTA special ranking of world No.1 – the position she held at the time of her injury – exactly like Serena Williams in the singles. And again, exactly like Serena, her special ranking does not provide for her to be seeded.

“Am I bummed out that I won’t get seeded anywhere?” she muses, in her own characteristic phrasing. “I feel I need to be able to beat all these players to get back to where I was. So I don’t mind. It would be nice, sure, but I have to beat these players regardless. It is what it is. I have to work my way back.”

All the way to No.1 again. Mattek-Sands has the target in her sights, and she means business.