Mattek-Sands' memorable season, U.S. Open pursuit curbed by pain

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NEW YORK -- All Bethanie Mattek-Sands wanted was a chance to finish off the best Grand Slam season of her 12-year pro career at her favorite tournament.

Even when an MRI last month revealed a tear in her right rotator cuff suffered shortly after Wimbledon, Mattek-Sands refused surgery. Instead, the 26-year-old Phoenix native spent the past four weeks rehabbing the shoulder with Dr. Malcolm Conway in Wyoming, Pa. -- often as many as eight hours a day -- just for the opportunity of playing in the U.S. Open.

In the end, it wasn't enough.

Mattek-Sands lost 6-1, 6-3 to Slovenia's Polona Hercog on Monday in the first round of the season's final major tournament, a desultory score line that fails to match the luster of her optimistic 2011 campaign.

"I think I was maybe a week off from feeling great," she said.

The 35th-ranked Mattek-Sands -- the second-highest ranked American after Serena Williams -- landed only 58 percent of her first serves and committed more than three times as many unforced errors (31) as her opponent (9). She netted forehands, sprayed backhands and bore little resemblance -- aside from her trademark eye black, of course -- to the upstart who defeated then-No. 4 Francesca Schiavone and Ana Ivanovic earlier this year in Madrid before peaking at a career-high ranking of No. 30.

Hercog, a rangy 20-year-old, was ranked No. 41 but winless in each of her two previous U.S. Open appearances. She used all of her 6-foot frame to uncoil booming serves toward Mattek-Sands' visibly hampered forehand.

"I hit a couple winners here and there, but I couldn't do certain things," Mattek-Sands said. "I thought I had a good game tactically against her, but I wasn't really able to execute."

For years, Mattek-Sands' outsized personality and adventurous fashion sense threatened to obscure her tennis. A striped cowboy hat worn here six years ago earned her a fine from the tour. There have been leopard-and zebra-printed outfits. Her "soccer theme" at Wimbledon in 2006 consisted of £10 football socks, chandelier earrings, a tube top worn over a strappy vest top, tiny running shorts and a headband -- and promptly landed in the Wimbledon museum's collection.

The result is the twofold reputation of shrewd self-promoter and clown princess of American tennis.

But for all the criticism the ebullient Mattek-Sands has weathered from the buttoned-down tennis establishment and miscellaneous haters, she's mined every ounce of ability from her 5-foot-6 frame -- and had a lot of fun doing it.

Her outfit Monday was understated by her standards: an All-American theme with red shoes, white top, blue shorts and stars-and-stripes knee-high socks (complemented by a white Cortiglia designer couture bag with red tassels and star patterns).

But it was her grit that impressed those who knew what she endured.

"Three weeks ago I couldn't touch my shoulder, I couldn't wash my face," she said. "[Tonight] it hurt on impact and then it would go away. What I was told is if it kept hurting and didn't go away even after I stopped hitting, then that would be when I needed to stop. It never did that."

Mattek-Sands' next scheduled event is the Bell Challenge in Quebec City, which begins Sept. 12. The prognosis remains unclear.

"It's really until I can go out there and hit a normal forehand," she said. "Up until now it was my healthiest season. I felt great from January playing all through Europe, I was really pumped. That's why this is disappointing."