Retooled Mathewson aiming higher:
'I want to see how good I can get'
Victoria Chiesa | May 12, 2021
Top-ranked American wheelchair tennis player Dana Mathewson says recently relocating to Orlando to train at the USTA National Campus has transformed her competitive mindset—and may have even extended her career.
A touring pro for over 10 years, Mathewson has been the top-ranked American woman for much of it, and is currently ranked world No. 10. Having largely trained independently previously while she was an audiology student at the University of Arizona and University College London, the 30-year-old made the decision to commit to full-time training in Orlando early last year, just prior to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Originally, I actually was going to hang up my racquet, so to speak, after Tokyo, and that that was strictly more or less due to monetary reasons. I was kind of knocking on that door but wasn't having a lot of big sponsors coming in, I was like, I can't keep doing this forever. ADVERTISEMENT I need to go and get a get another job,” Mathewson recently told usta.com.
“Between the very end of 2019 and the beginning of last year, I had finished my master's degree and… I knew that I had a window between that and Tokyo, which then was a much shorter window than it has become. And I was like, ‘I'm going to move to Orlando and really take them up on all of the things that they've said are open to me and just really devote myself to tennis, finally have coaching, do all of those things and see how good I can get.’”
At the National Campus, Mathewson works with USTA Player Development coaches and staff that include head coach and manager for wheelchair tennis Jason Harnett; head strength and conditioning coach Satoshi Ochi and mental skills specialist Dr. Larry Lauer, all of whom she says have had tangible impacts on her tennis.
“I think my career leading up to this, and I don't want to sound cocky because it's not that, was really just based on whatever raw talent I had. I was lucky that I was good enough to get to where I was in the rankings. In terms of a lot of maybe foundational things that other players had, I was lacking,” Mathewson said.
“I've had coaches and stuff here and there, but with wheelchair tennis—and I guess it's the same with able-bodied pros—unless you're at a certain level, it's hard to have endorsements and a lot of money coming in. You have to pay for a lot of things, either pay for a coach or pay to travel and compete. In wheelchair tennis, it’s a little bit more in that you have to pay for a sports wheelchair. I basically picked traveling and competing to get a ranking because what good is coaching if I can't compete? So that's what most of my career was. I would learn from people on the road. I would do a lot of sessions on my own.
“I’m stronger now. I think I see the court a little differently now. I have more things in my tool belt that I can do from working on short angles or dropshots, training every day, doing drills. Working with Dr. Lauer, I've learned so much, too. I noticed a lot of my competitors were doing mental skills coaching. You could see them doing routines and things like that, and I would try to mimic it. I was doing things but didn't understand the significance of them. Now, I've noticed a big difference in my composure on-court and my patience. I think things I do now have more intent and purpose behind them, and that's always a good thing.”
With the ITF/UNIQLO Wheelchair Tennis Tour, like its counterpart ATP and WTA tours, suspended for much of 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Mathewson found few playing opportunities last year and played just six events, including the US Open as a wild card. However, the rewards of her training were swift upon her competitive return: in her first tournament of 2021 in Loughborough, Great Britain, Mathewson reached her first singles final in two-and-a-half years, earning her first career victory over 12-time Grand Slam champion and world No. 4 Jordanne Whiley along the way.
“The pandemic, it afforded me an extra year to learn from all these different people. I now have, more or less, a team, which I've never had before. A lot of the people I compete against in other countries, they've always had teams. I've always kind of been trying to catch up to people, and I feel like I've leveled that playing field now," Mathewson said.
"Going there, I was just hoping that my hard work was going to show. I just really didn't want to go out there and lose first round or have a win or a loss where I just didn't show what I've been really working on for months and months... So seeing things like reaching the finals of that tournament, having a career-best win, I'm like, 'Okay, this is working.' It fuels you and it's really exciting."
While the wheelchair tour schedule continues to be in a state of flux — "I don't have a set schedule, just because things keep getting either postponed or canceled or new tournaments just pop up out of nowhere," — Mathewson says she's nonetheless been rejuvenated in pursuit of two longtime goals.
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One is breaking through a steady barrier she's faced: the top-seven in the world rankings. Positioning in that range not only affords wheelchair players direct entry to Grand Slams—currently, the four majors have eight-player draws with one wild card entry, though Mathewson says discussions of expanding draws have taken place amongst the Grand Slams—but the financial stability that comes with it.
"That's definitely been the goal for a long time, but it's now the goal more than ever," Mathewson said. "The fact that I'm ranked where I am, but I can't play at a Grand Slam is pretty insane if you think about it. On the able-bodied tour, the Slams are where they have the biggest draws, and for us, it's the exact opposite. You'd never seen an eight-player draw at any of our other tournaments. I am used to being just like the able-bodied players where I'm on the road at 20-plus tournaments a year, living out of a suitcase, living in hotels. Our tour works very similar to theirs. We're just in different places.
"But because the wheelchair tour is still growing, unfortunately, the Slams are the only place where there's a lot of prize money and a lot of points to be earned. But our depth of play has also increased, and players in the Top 15 are all really competitive with people in the Top 10, Top 5. So many points that can be won at Slams that whoever gets to play those just keep staying up there, and it's really hard for anyone to break in. If you can allow those big points to be earned by more people, it would even things out a little bit.
"I think also for people that have gone to the Slams and are used to seeing those same top-seven players, fans watching, that maybe gets a little bit boring. I think it would be nice to have more of a mix of players so they could see that it's not just eight people that go around the world playing each other."
The other is representing her country on the world stage once again. A Team USA World Team Cup stalwart since 2009, Mathewson would be in line to qualify for a second Paralympic Games should the rescheduled event be staged in Tokyo later this summer. In her first Paralympics in Rio five years ago, Mathewson reached the second round in singles and quarterfinals in doubles, and she won two medals at the Parapan American Games in Lima, Peru in 2019.
"The Dana that played in Rio was definitely a lot more green, a little naive. I had actually quit tennis for two or three years leading up to Rio, and I had come back to it pretty much just at the beginning of 2015. I had one year to qualify and... I didn't have any expectations for myself. I was just really happy. The goal then was to qualify, and I feel like now my goal is to medal," Mathewson said.
"I'm really proud that in that space of four years I've come up not just in rankings, but more just as a player. I feel like I'm more complete and I feel like I'm a better match player. I've learned a lot. Obviously, I have a lot more to learn, but I feel like the Dana then was just happy to be there and just wanted to see what happened. Future Dana will be ecstatic to be in Tokyo, should it happen. But I think that I have a lot higher expectations for myself in terms of what I know I'm capable of. And I'm just hoping I do that.
"I think it's easy for tennis players in general to kind of lose touch with how cool it is that we get to do what we do, whether it's like playing in front of crowds or representing your country. Playing in a Games is huge. Any time you get to wear USA on your back, for me, motivates me more. I feel like I'm not just playing for me, I'm playing for something bigger and I find that really motivating. I think also tennis has the Slams and those are arguably seen as like more important, depending on who you ask, but in terms of disabled sport or adaptive sports, the Paralympics are the pinnacle of what you can reach. Being able to say that you're participating in that alone is a big accomplishment and something I'm proud of.
"It's also cool that this will be the first time ever that the United States is going to show the Paralympics on primetime TV. That's been something that's been overlooked for years. They would show the Olympics, obviously, every day, every night, but the Paralympics would get a 10-minute highlight reel after the entire two weeks of the Games. There was like a huge, obvious discrepancy, and this is the first year ever that they're actually going to show us so I think that's really cool. That's just a step towards the recognition and equality that I think we deserve, so that's really exciting for me."
All in all, Mathewson says, she's more excited than ever for what her immediate future has in store, and tennis will very much be a part of it.
"Things are starting to go really well here, and so I'm like, 'Okay, I don't think I'm done yet.' I don't want to retire with any what ifs so I'm definitely not stopping after Tokyo now," she said. "I don't know how long I'll play, but I have decided that I have all these things at my disposal and I think it would be such a waste if I didn't capitalize on that. Not everyone gets these opportunities and I don't want to squander that or be ungrateful for it in any way, so we'll see how far it can take me."