It’s been almost two months since Bethanie Mattek-Sands collapsed on the grass at Wimbledon, clutching her left knee and screaming in pain. Now after surgery and ongoing intense rehab, she has no doubt she will return to tennis, maybe even the Australian Open in mid-January.
That’s an extremely ambitious goal, but it’s been set by an extremely ambitious, extremely optimistic, extremely vibrant personality who is beloved in the game, and who loves it back.
It was July 6 during a match with Sorana Cirstea when Mattek-Sands decided to rush the net. When she got to the service line her knee buckled and she knew it was bad. She had ruptured her patellar tendon and dislocated her kneecap. But as she was taken to a London hospital, she wasn’t thinking that her career might be over, that she had played her last match, that she was done.
“It didn’t go through my mind at all. Before I got to the hospital, it was figuring out what happened to my knee,” she said the other day at the Tennis Center where she is doing commentary on the U.S. Open for the Tennis Channel. “There’s no reason to look too far ahead in the future. Things happen. I think too many times we are looking in the past or too far in the future and avoiding the present moment. That’s how I live my life, what’s going on right now.”
Mattek-Sands, 32, made her pro debut at 14 and started playing professionally full-time in 2005. In all that time she has never won a WTA Tour-level event. But over the last few seasons she had found her niche as a doubles player with Lucie Safarova. Mattek-Sands was the No. 1 doubles player in the world and at Wimbledon she and Safarova were going for their fourth straight Grand Slam title.
In an instant, Mattek-Sands was out of the tournament, out of tennis and soon on her way to New York where she was operated on by Dr. David Altchek at the New York Hospital for Special Surgery. She said her doctor believes that she can play tennis again and all the signs have been good in her follow-up visits.
“I’m definitely coming back next year,” she said. “I’m aiming for the Australian Open which would be six months post-surgery, which is pretty quick. But I’m putting it out there as my incentive. I’m not trying to rush anything. Tennis will be there no matter when I come back next year.”
There isn’t a trace of “woe-is-me” in the aftermath of her latest injury. For Mattek-Sands, injury and rehab are part of the athlete’s life. She has had two surgeries on her left hip and other injuries that have forced her out of the game for long stretches. Forever upbeat, Mattek-Sands feeds off the optimism of her doctor and everyone else involved in her rehab.
“He’s really happy with my recovery and so are my therapists,” she said. “The first six weeks are the main healing weeks. I couldn’t bend my knee, I couldn’t do much, I was on crutches [and still is] and now he’s given me the go-ahead for more mobility, more strength training. The first couple weeks were tough, I couldn’t do anything on my own, I needed help getting in bed, I needed help getting in the car, in a chair, so my husband was working pretty hard.”
Known for her eccentric fashion choices (knee socks, goofy dress patterns, colored hair), the effusive Mattek-Sands could well be the most liked player on tour. She has many friends, including Cirstea, who was devastated by the injury and comforted her as she lay on the Wimbledon grass alongside Mattek-Sands’ husband, Justin.
“It was a tragic moment, was very, very unlucky,” said Cirstea. “She’s an unbelievable girl, she brings so much to tennis and brings so much joy. It was a very unlucky moment that brought us way closer.”
Mattek-Sands is, by nature, an embracer of life as a whole.
“This is my life,” she said. “I’m rehabbing, I’m doing something fun and exciting, having the opportunity to work on TV here, to go experience New York Fashion Week. I take each moment as it comes. That’s kind of the way I looked at it when I was playing. I’m doing everything for my happiness in the present moment.”