Currently the best American woman without a Williams surname, Bethanie Mattek-Sands ranks No. 52 on the Sony Ericcson WTA Tour. A Rochester, Minn., native, Sands grew up a "shy, Midwest girl" but has drawn attention for her high white socks at Wimbledon, her varying hair colors and the Ford F-350 Diesel she drives.
In a recent interview with SI.com, the 24-year-old discussed her time at the Chis Evert tennis academy, self-reflection after a double-bagel loss and just how far the WTA and ITF are willing to track her every move to complete drug testing.
SI.com: You did not use strategy really until last year. Why?
Mattek-Sands: It's funny because a lot of people could never guess what I was going to do, but most of the time it was because I didn't know what I was going to do. The tipping point was when I lost to Maria Sharapova last year in Charleston, S.C., 6-0, 6-0. I called one of my doctors, who is also a mentor, and I said I don't know what I'm doing. I had worked a little bit with a coach, and fired him a few weeks before. I was fed up and went to the drawing board. I didn't want to lose like that again.
After that, I did well in some challengers. I had to qualify for the French, played Sharapova there and got a set off her. Since last March, it has gone up. A couple of years ago, I was literally just going on the court and hitting the ball. I'd think, "Here's my forehand. OK, I am going down the line.' If it's my backhand, I'll drop-shot." It was tough to be consistent that way. Once I sat down and did plays in a notebook like football with X's and O's, I said, 'OK, I'm going to go crosscourt and this is what I think they're going to hit." It started working and I was really surprised.
I just started working with a coach two months ago. It's more of a part-time thing as he is Nadia Petrova's coach, and I've been playing doubles with Nadia. I didn't want anyone to teach me how to hit a forehand or hit 600 backhands. I don't need that. I've hit a billion in my lifetime. What's 600 more going to do? It's difficult to find someone who's finely tuned for you. A good coach is someone who can break down players, someone who is good with angles, setting up points on the court.
SI.com: Not many women have ventured out of the Midwest and into the world rankings. How did you make it down to Florida and the academy life after years in Minnesota and Wisconsin?
Mattek-Sands: I was invited to try out for two weeks and that turned into a month. I was there by myself without my parents [as a 13-year-old]. They ended up moving down about five months later. Just seeing kids from other countries was definitely different. I boarded for a while and had not been away from home for that long. I was able to have somewhat of a normal family life when my parents moved nearby. My clearest memory was a blazing hot summer day. It was the end of doing lunges and was literally my first time playing tennis for more than two hours in a day. We were going on six hours and I started crying. I couldn't do it. It was almost like I had to make the decision to grow up and go through with it. I'm not a big emotional person, but I was just ballin'. I stopped the line and just yelled, "I can't do it!"
SI.com:What was it like learning under Evert?
Mattek-Sands: It was a big deal for me to meet her. She was there hitting with the players four times a week. Even at that age, I could tell she was very under control and consistent, even though she wasn't training for a professional event. She was just practicing with us but her practices were very precise and focused the whole time. One of the reasons that she won was her mental toughness. It carried through even after her playing days. I don't remember Chrissie playing. The ones I watched were Steffi Graf and Monica Seles.
SI.com: Of the players you competed against, who has gone on to successful careers?
Mattek-Sands: A lot of the players I trained with are not playing anymore. It's amazing to see the players who kicked my ass during that time are not here. The one person who is still doing well is Andy Roddick. Most of the girls who were better than me went to college or quit tennis. It's interesting to see who stuck around. It's pretty crazy to see who was good in juniors, who tried going pro. A lot of people fall off and it's really that difficult to get to each level.
SI.com: What contributes to the drop-off?
Mattek-Sands: I think burnout is a big thing. If I could do it over again, I'd probably do it the same way, playing other sports when I'm younger. I see a lot of parents really push their younger kids really hard, and you want to see your kids do stuff, but there's a point where they really should have fun at that age. I appreciate my parents doing that for me.
Another reason in the U.S. is that there are so many other opportunities out there. If you're not top 30-50 in the world, you can go to college, get an education and make just as much money. For anyone with some common sense, it can be a situation of take it or leave it, whatever the better option is. In terms of other countries, for some it is the only way to get out of the country they are in. Even some of the Russians I trained with went to college. It's a mental game -- a lot play eight hours a day, and it's a struggle if you get injured and cannot play again.
SI.com: Have you ever considered leaving the game behind?
Mattek-Sands: I've lost matches and thought, "I'm never playing again." A few days will go by and I'll think, "OK, I guess I'm not too bad at it." There was no doubt that I wanted to be a professional tennis player.
SI.com: Wimbledon has been an important stage for you. Last year you reached the fourth round, and the previous fortnight you captured the media's eye with your high white socks. How do you feel about the British crowd?
Mattek-Sands: I had bought the white socks at Herod's in London a few days before, and a few days later I went back to buy another pair to wear for doubles. They had sold out because people saw me wear them, so that was the best. I get a lot of positive stuff from the fans. The media are more the ones who rake on me a little. I didn't like to do the expected. Just keep people wondering what I am doing. It was great to reach the fourth round last year, beating [2007 finalist] Marion Bartoli was awesome. It solidified I belong with those players.
SI.com: You are married to a former college football player. How does Justin help you with your game?
Mattek-Sands: He runs his own business and has been able to turn his work into a virtual office. The Europe season can be long, tough and lonely, but I'm so glad he made the decision to be with me. I told him I feel and play better when he's around. He's a football guy, but he's starting to play tennis. I was feeding him balls and taught a two-handed backhand [recently]. He's the only person I let grip my rackets. He makes my drinks before the match. He would listen and has picked up some strategy. He played football at Albany State and tried out for a few NFL teams but injuries forced him out. Before we got married, I'd call him and give him my game plan. I'd say I know you have no idea what I'm talking about, but I just have to say this to someone.
SI.com: There's video of you driving a Ford F-350 Diesel at a spring tournament. When did you go with the 40-inch tires?
Mattek-Sands: It is technically my husband's. I'm just a chick driving a big truck. I've been driving it and I get so many compliments. I get high fives from guys. You're sitting level with semi-trucks. The previous biggest car I drove was a Land Rover. My first car was a muscle car -- 25th anniversary edition Mustang GT, stick shift. I'm more into that. My husband's a big guy so he loves the 40-inch tires, and loves everything big. I would drive it all the time.
SI.com: What is the house like in north Phoenix and how do you get away during down time?
Mattek-Sands: My husband loves to hunt and there are a lot of animal heads on the wall. We have a big buffalo above our fireplace. We don't have a formal living room table; we have a pool table. We have zebra and bear rugs around the house. We have in our upstairs a home-theater room that's like a cave. I could stay there all day. I told him it could be on MTV Cribs.
SI.com: What is the biggest game you've hunted?
Mattek-Sands: I'm supposed to go cape buffalo hunting with my husband in Zimbabwe after Wimbledon. I've gone on a mountain lion hunt with him. He's done this since he was a kid. He pays attention to the track and had to go look over a mountain once. He said to stay where I was, and I'm like, "OK, all we have is a bow, and I'm a good shot, but I don't know what I would do if the lion charged at me." If you're hunting deer, that's OK. But these things are fast and all you have is a bow.
Tennis tourneys are normally in a big city, but it's fun to get away. I actually have to give longitude, latitude to the WTA and ITF for my drug-testing updates. There's no address where we go sometimes, and they need to know where I am pretty much at any time. Not sure they could find me. It's important to keep the sport clean. I think it's a little overboard. It's a pain to really be consistent with where you're going. If you're not where you said you were, you get a failed test. I guess they're doing what they have to do.