By Douglas Robson
Baseline character traits form at an early age. Baseline tennis? That can take considerably longer. Rarely has this developmental dichotomy been so manifest as it is with Bethanie Mattek-Sands, whose precocious personality blossomed far quicker than her gradually gestating tennis career. "I was more comfortable with my personality than, I think, with my game," says Mattek-Sands, whose sartorial sensations—animal prints, cowboy hats, and lately eye black and knee-high socks—have given her a cult following and spawned comparisons to pop diva Lady Gaga. "I think it’s kind of caught up to me—being as confident in my personality as I am now in my game."
Not that the she didn’t show early promise on the court. At 14, the Minnesota native won the world’s most prestigious event for girls her age—Les Petits As in France—and promptly turned pro. But it is her penchant for pushing the fashion envelope, rather than her slow-cooking game, that first put her on the map with casual tennis observers. "I think that’s kind of the consensus—that I’m pretty daring, even on the court and even with my game," says Mattek-Sands, now 26.
Compared to today’s abundance of lanky, packaged, metronomic female players, Mattek-Sands stands out, and not just for her sturdy 5-foot-6 frame. Her body ink features a bevy of bumble bees on her right wrist (a reference to her nickname, "Killer B") and pink water lilies on the inside of her bicep. She has plans for another piece of art on her left thigh from Louis Molloy, better known as the artist behind David Beckham’s oft-photographed angel tattoo. Mattek-Sands met with Alex Noble, a costume creator for Lady Gaga, to devise a dress composed of tennis paraphernalia—balls, racquets, string and whatever else was lying around—for this year’s Wimbledon ball. And she was not too shy to go backstage at Paris’ famed Moulin Rouge, where she tried on a cabaret outfit and then performed the can-can—which she promptly put up on YouTube.
While some may think of her as one of tennis’ enduring novelty acts, Mattek-Sands is a diligent, ambitious player. She has worked hard to transform herself into a player to be reckoned with on the women’s tour. She embraces her inner fashionista, but she also wants to be known beyond her eye-grabbing ensembles. "I get more attention for the colorful outfits than for wins," she laughs, "but once the wins start coming, it’s like, ‘Oh, OK. She works hard in practice, too.’"
Like many attacking players, Mattek-Sands’ game has taken time to ripen. She can grind when necessary, but she is more dangerous when moving forward. She isn’t afraid to take the net—even serve-and-volley—and her kick serve has become a legitimate weapon. She is best when cracking returns and taking time away from opponents. "I think she was born to take the ball early and be aggressive," says her coach, Adam Altschuler.
Mattek-Sands did not crack the Top 100 until 2007. For the most part, she toiled on the tour’s lower ranks, struggled with confidence and fought through injuries, including career-threatening hip surgery in 2009 that set her back after a best-ever Top 40 finish in 2008. True to her middle-class Midwestern roots, the American punched the clock to get where she is. "She works extremely hard," says Altschuler, who began working with Mattek-Sands in early 2010 when her ranking had dipped outside the Top 150.
Part of the maturation process has been learning to cope with life lived out of a suitcase (Mattek-Sands often travels with her husband, Justin Sands, whom she married in 2008). "She’s a great example for up-and-coming females," says Lynne Rolley, the former director of women’s tennis for the USTA who has worked with the likes of Lindsay Davenport and Jennifer Capriati. "Not only do you have to develop your forehand, you have to develop your lifestyle, your career, learn how to have fun, and enjoy the process every day." Rolley singles out Mattek-Sands as an exemplar of perseverance. "The more I follow her, the more I admire her improvement," she adds. "It seems that her confidence is building with all the little steps she’s earned."
Mattek-Sands says her drive grew out of necessity, since it took her a while to find her rhythm on tour. "I think if you look at some of the younger players that had a lot of success, they had agents all around them, parents around them, coaches around them. And they couldn’t really do much and think much for themselves," she says. "For a long time I was traveling by myself. I didn’t have a coach. So I just had to do a lot of stuff myself. I guess I’m just kind of used to that. And even now, with all my new opportunities I’m having as far as sponsorships or this and that, I have a lot of say in it."
In 2011, Mattek-Sands has toned down her outfits and shored up her game. After starting the season at No. 59, she was at a career-high No. 31 after Wimbledon, her year including a final appearance at Hobart and a semifinal showing indoors at Paris. In the spring on clay, she stunned former French Open champions Ana Ivanovic and Francesca Schiavone back-to-back in Madrid before falling to Li Na of China, who won her first title at Roland Garros a few weeks later. Mattek-Sands had been 1-16 versus Top 10 players before taking down Schiavone. "I’m more confident in my game plan, and that’s what’s helped me this year," she says.
The American is still looking for her first WTA singles title, but she has collected her share of doubles hardware. She owns nine doubles titles and reached the 2010 Wimbledon semifinals with Liezel Huber. She also has become a vital part of the U.S. Fed Cup team, scoring important wins for captain Mary Joe Fernandez and providing leadership for younger players such as Melanie Oudin and CoCo Vandeweghe.
Elite status, of course, can only come with Grand Slam success. Though she reached the fourth round at Wimbledon in 2008, Mattek-Sands lost in the first round there this year. But at this year’s French Open, she reached the third round, becoming the first American woman without the surname Williams to go that deep in Paris since 2006. On home soil, tennis’ Gaga has yet to steal the limelight. In 10 consecutive trips to the US Open, Mattek-Sands hasn’t punched past the second round—a record of frustration that makes her seethe. "It’s a love-hate relationship," she says of her favorite Slam, where it is her dream to play—and win—a night match.
Her offbeat couture and directness haven’t kept her from becoming one of the tour’s best-liked players. At the end of 2010, she was elected to the players’ council. "I don’t know anyone who doesn’t like her," says Australian Sam Stosur. Adds former No. 1 Jelena Jankovic of Serbia: "I think she has a great personality. Tennis needs people like that. And she’s very humble outside of the court." Mattek-Sands says her peers even complain when she isn’t making the news with her racy getups. "The players have noticed that I’ve toned down a little bit, so I’ve had a couple of them come up to me in the locker room and say, ‘Dude, you haven’t done anything new in a while. What are you gonna do?’"
Mattek-Sands has been a quick study when it comes to leveraging media. She has parlayed her personality into a brand, becoming a sort of digital-age media maven. She regularly blogs for USA Today, and uses her personal website, bmattek.com, as a portal for all her on- and off-court endeavors. The women’s tour has taken note and chose Mattek-Sands as one of six players for its "XPeria Hot Shots," a new social networking campaign that follows various players throughout 2011.
Mattek-Sands sees this as both entrepreneurial and opportunistic. The line she draws between professional athlete and entertainer is consciously blurry, which is why she says she’s the CEO of her business. "For me, it’s a lot of fun, and I’m glad people like it," she says. "It’s entertainment. And that’s pretty much what tennis is."