Bethanie Mattek-Sands (above) has enjoyed success on clay in 2011, beating Francesca Schiavone in Madrid. (Dominique Faget/AFP/Getty Images)
For the first time since 2003, a Grand Slam is taking place with neither Venus nor Serena Williams in the draw. That makes Bethanie Mattek-Sands the highest ranked American woman at the French Open. With a career-high ranking of No. 34, Mattek-Sands faces Spain's Arantxa Parra Santonja in the first round on Sunday (Court 7, fourth match). We caught up with the 26-year-old Phoenix native to talk about the French Open draw, her mid-career surge and why she identifies with Lady Gaga.
SI.com: You're the highest ranked American here. Does it feel any different?
Bethanie Mattek-Sands: I'm the highest one playing right now but obviously Serena and Venus are still ahead of me. I'm at 34. It's my career high, which I'm very proud of, but I still feel I have a long way to go with my goals. I still want to break top 32. I was pretty close here at French Open at getting seeded, it just didn't happen. When you think of American tennis you think of No. 1 in the world, No. 2 in the world. I dont know if I feel much pressure right now. I'm doing the best that I can and I'm working my way up. I want to be the next American in the top 10.
SI.com: What were your impressions of the women's draw?
Mattek-Sands: I'm not a big advocate of looking at the draw -- I tend to just ask who I'm playing first round and then I don't really look at it -- but I know I'm playing Parra Santonja from Spain. I actually played her last year in New Haven and I won that match. Obviously it's a different surface here on the red clay. I'm feeling good, the biggest thing I can do is put my game plan together and go from there. I saw a couple of the other matchups. There are going to be a few tough first rounds for some people, but overall I can't say I really studied the draw.
SI.com: Anything jump out at you?
Mattek-Sands: Mel [Oudin] is playing Schiavone. That's a big one. Obviously because Francesca's reigning champ, but last time they played Mel won in Fed Cup last year. So I think Mel will have a little bit of confidence. Obviously the clay court is a big factor -- we played hard indoors at the Fed Cup when she beat her -- but I think it will be an interesting match. I think she'll still have a little bit of confidence knowing that she beat her last time they played.
SI.com: If you win your first-round match, you'd likely get [No. 18 seed Flavia] Pennetta next. You've enjoyed some success against her lately, winning last week when you played in Rome.
Mattek-Sands: I think it's tough for her to play there, playing in front of a home crowd. We could have this awesome point, I hit a blazing winner and I'd hear crickets. It was a tough crowd. In a way it's really cool to see fans get behind someone that much. If I had that in the States, that would be unbelievable. Obviously everyone was against me there, and it's funny because we had this awesome match point -- I think there was a drop shot, a lob and I ended up hitting a running forehand passing shot -- and I was pumped and just shouted Come on! and it pretty much echoed. I was like, "Maybe I said that too loud." I beat her in three there but she's a grinder, she's been a top player for a long time, she's a tough player and she loves the dirt. I still have to get past Santonja first.
SI.com: How much do you like the surface? Do you feel comfortable on clay?
Mattek-Sands: There's a big stigma about Americans playing on clay but I actually like clay a lot. The last couple days, actually practicing here, I think it's actually playing pretty fast. The balls are going quick, the courts are playing a little quicker and there's not a lot of clay on the courts. If players get their footing, it's really playing toward aggressive players. I really don't mind it. There's a couple tournaments where the courts are better than others, that's for sure, but it doesn't get better than the French Open.
SI.com: What else is on your mind between now and Sunday?
Mattek-Sands: We're just still trying to figure out if I want to play mixed doubles or not. That's still kind of up in the air. When you play three events, it's a lot of matches, especially if you do well in everything. Earlier this year in Australia I made the semis in mixed and quarters in doubles, but my goal is singles, so that's pretty much my focus. Monday's the deadline for mixed so we'll see. Once you get in the tournament you kind of lose track of the days. It's just a matter of "Am I playing tomorrow? What time? Practice ... warm up ... play." You just kind of get in your tournament zone.
SI.com: You've never disappointed with your outfits. Anything fun planned for the next two weeks?
Mattek-Sands: I've been with Under Armour for the last couple years so I've been rocking their gear. The biggest thing that I'm bringing here my eye black that I've been wearing this year. And I'm still wearing my high socks. That's been my look. I have my own line of eye black actually: they just came up with it. It's basically kind of a zebra stripe print with different color combos.
SI.com: I've heard you referred to as the Lady Gaga of the tennis court. Your thoughts?
Mattek-Sands: It's funny because more and more people in the press and online have kind of dubbed me that. I like Lady Gaga. She's very individual. You dont know what she's going to come with next, she does her own thing and I think that's awesome. It's funny because I'm actually having a piece of clothing designed by one of her designers, this guy out of London namedAlex Noble. He's doing an outfit for me for Sir Richard Branson's Wimbledon player party.
It's funny because I think a lot of the stuff I do would be conservative in the entertainment world. But in the tennis world, you wear hot pink underwear and someone's like, "Oh my God!" You bring it over to the music side and they're like, "You've gotta do something more than that."
SI.com: What are your plans for the rest of 2011? Mattek-Sands: After the French Open we go to Copenhagen then Eastbourne then London for Wimbledon. After that, I'm taking a two-week vacation to go hunting in South Africa with my husband. [Laughs.] We'll be down there winging it for a little bit. My husband has been before, but this will be my first time. It's actually kind of been a goal of ours. Our motto has been, "We only live once, let's do it." We've really just had a lot of fun this year. I think I'm having the most fun now in my career than I've ever had. I'm more focused, I'm more fit, but at the same time I'm really enjoying myself off the court as well, so i think it's been a good balance.