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Mattek-Sands going with her own flow

January 13, 2014 07:04 AM
Bethanie Mattek-Sands will take on 2008 Australian Open champion Maria Sharapova in her opening-round match in Melbourne.

By Matt Cronin, special to USTA.com

MELBOURNE, Australia -- Bethanie Mattek-Sands has suffered plenty of injuries in her career. But she remains resilient, even though there have been times when the thought of having to rehabilitate again exhausted her.

After she suffered three tears in the MCL in her knee at the 2013 Quebec City tournament, which is played the week following the US Open, she was right back on her doctor’s table for eight-hours day, but not without mentally struggling when she thought about the torturous weeks ahead. The woman who has been through a slew of injuries and illnesses, including back, hip and food allergies, was thunderstruck.

“It took me a few days to get my mind right,” said Mattek-Sands, who faces 2008 Australian Open champion Maria Sharapova in Rod Laver Arena on Tuesday night. “I told [my husband] Justin I don't know if I can get mentally fired up for this right now. I was feeling good, I had a great season, and I was looking forward to going to Asia, and to mentally have to change to go into rehab, I told everybody, 'I don't know if I can do it right now.'”

If Mattek-Sands wanted to be ready by the start of the 2014 season, she did not have the option to take a couple weeks off and relax. So the 28-year-old American limped into her doctor’s office, and the rehabilitation process began.

“You get over feeling sorry for yourself,” she said. “I knew it would be painful, and I knew what it would entail, and it was depressing. So I adjusted. I’m a pretty positive person, in general, but there are times when you need someone else to help you out and bring you back up. Justin [a former college football player] has been through thick and thin with me. I would not have been able to do it without him.”

The colorful all-court player steadily did the rehab work, and by the first week of December her movement began to return. Soon she could hit again and, day after day, her body grew used to the on-court pounding.

Some players fall out of rhythm quickly, but Mattek-Sands has been playing long enough to know that she won’t forget how to strike a tennis ball. Getting used to the pace of shots does take some time, but when the former world No. 30 arrived in Australia with her coach, Adam Altschuler, she was already in good form.

She opened her season taking a tough loss to Andrea Petkovic in Brisbane, but in Sydney she knocked out Canadian sensation Eugenie Bouchard and then former Wimbledon finalist Agnieszka Radwanska, a win she called one of the best of her career.

“I think I've only gotten better,” she said. “Since last year, my goal was to improve every single day. If I do that, I'm happy with myself. I think that's allowed me to see my game in a different light and really improve on things I want to improve on and really stay with my strengths. I've just gotten more specific, I think, as I've gotten older. I'm improving every day, so I'm excited for this year.”

The U.S. Fed Cup team member has changed her mindset over the years. She is no longer as results oriented, even though she dislikes taking losses. There has to be a reward at the end of the rehab rainbow, and for the Arizona resident, that means reveling in her on-court experiences.

“I’ve worked so hard to come back from all my injuries, and if I am not enjoying it on court, what did I really do it for?" she said. "At the end of the day, I want to be doing something I love, and obviously I hate to lose, but my goals are, ‘Did I give my best? Did I work on what I needed to work on? Did I have fun?' Because I play better when I am relaxed.”

In 2013, Mattek focused on improving rather than W's, and she took her ranking from No. 173 to No. 46 before she got hurt in Quebec. After Sydney, she has pushed up her ranking to No. 41, just 11 spots off her career high of No. 30, which she achieved in July 2011, when she was seeded at a Slam for the first time at Wimbledon.

But she focuses more on process now, as she realizes that she cannot control everything that occurs during a match. She does not take her sport lightly, but she prefers to feel happy inside when she’s competing. If she can have a blast against Sharapova and play freely, she will be in there with a chance.

“It’s not like going-to-the-beach type of fun,” she said. “I like it when I am playing my game, and once you get over the winning and losing and you are being creative out there, you are reacting to your opponent and to yourself, and that's when you get into the moment. That's what’s fun, and that's why I train so hard -- to play like that. When I was a teenager, I would try so hard and get so pissed after losses. You have to relax and let it flow and stop thinking and just go out and play.”


For more coverage of Americans at the 2014 Australian Open, please also read:

For Harrison, big year and big expectations
Teenager Keys ready to go


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