2013 French Open

Bethanie Mattek-Sands: Unwritten

One of my earliest tennis-related memories involves me truncating a fifth-grade journal entry to watch a night match during the 2002 US Open. At the bottom of the page, I wrote “CAPRIATI VS. MATTEK” in purple gel ink before apparently going off to watch then-top American Jennifer Capriati double-bagel a young Bethanie Mattek-Sands under the lights at Arthur Ashe Stadium.

I don’t recall anything from the match (least of all what the now-infamous fashion rebel was wearing), but looking back over the last decade, it was undoubtedly the last time the American veteran could be described as anything other than “memorable.”

In her early 20s, she turned the large shadow cast by compatriots like the Williams sisters and Davenport into a whacky sideshow act. Over the years, the WTA’s resident couture maven has played matches in leopard print, uneven sleeves, and knee socks (not to mention her signature eye black). Despite failing to rack up big wins in her early years on the Tour, she became a player who commanded attention in other ways, and her honest quirkiness ended up gaining her a cult following. Her showman-like style, however, belies a tidily efficient all-court game, honed by her frequent success in doubles. Where she may lack the wattage of her contemporaries, she nonetheless is more than capable of out-aggressing her peers by taking the ball on the rise and finishing off points at the net.

Looking to join the long roster of her generation’s late bloomers, Mattek-Sands hit her stride in 2011, reaching only her second Slam third-round, but arrived at Wimbledon two weeks later ranked in the top 32 at a major tournament for the first time in her career. Arriving to court in a tennis ball-embellished leather jacket designed by Alex Noble, Mattek-Sands let a three-set heartbreaker to Misaki Doi slip away; from there, the American went on a downward spiral of injuries and early losses. As recently as this January, the American was ranked outside the top 150.

Unbeknownst to many in the tennis world, what seemed like rock bottom for Mattek-Sands was the start of a truly inspiring comeback. Much like current ATP No. 1 Novak Djokovic, she discovered a host of food allergies were contributing to the fatigue she had been feeling last fall. Now carrying a trusty “Do Not Eat” list wherever she goes, Mattek-Sands has revolutionized her diet and fitness. The results were not too far behind. After making the finals of an International event in Kuala Lumpur, she turned things up a notch during the clay court season, the site of her triumphs from two years ago. Sporting a blue tint to her blonde hair, she recorded an emphatic victory over Sloane Stephens in Charleston and a dramatic three-set win over Sara Errani (last year’s French Open finalist) en route to the semifinals of Stuttgart, where she lost to Li Na.

Here in Paris, Mattek-Sands has already completed her career renaissance with revenge over 2011 French Open Champion Li and solid wins over competent clay courters in Lourdes Dominguez-Lino and Paula Ormaechea. Twice coming from a set down, the American has shown tremendous resilience and has translated her willingness to overcome adversity off the court to her matches. She will need all of that fight against the relentless Maria Kirilenko if she hopes to keep the run going and make her first major quarterfinal.

I think about my old journal when I think of Bethanie Mattek-Sands. Every entry was written in a different color of (glittery) ink and, lacking any air of pretension in its prose, its voice never took itself too seriously. But that journal was left unfinished. The best part about Mattek-Sands’s story is that, having already made up so much ground, she has the opportunity to go even farther, to rewrite pages that nobody ever thought would be written in the first place. No matter how or when this French Open chapter ends, Mattek-Sands has made it clear that her story is far from over.

Caroline Wozniacki: Sick and Tired

Caroline Wozniacki won’t beat you with power.

She doesn’t have a booming serve to guarantee her easy points. She won’t intimidate you with her reckless aggression, nor will she take time away with forays to the net. Through her struggles during this year’s clay court season, it has become readily apparent that the source of the former No.1’s prior successes laid almost exclusively on one concept: belief.

Far from a simple “I think, therefore I am” scenario, the Dane’s belief was two-fold. For one, she believed in herself, in her fitness and consistency. An underrated athlete, Wozniacki could run all day, tracking down what would be a winner against any other player, and force her opponent to hit one extra ball. At her best, she did everything well which, against her more combustible rivals, was good enough to take her through most of the matches she played over the course of 18 months.

This leads to the second, more changeable part of Wozniacki’s sense of belief. She not only believed in her own ability, but she also believed in the inability of others. Though her opponents could hit more winners and endear crowds with their flashier styles, Caroline was consistent, maddeningly so. Even with her back against the wall, she was content to keep grinding until she had worn her opponents down into a pile of frustration over what appeared to be wasted opportunities.

When trying to fend off the criticism she faced as a Slamless No. 1, Wozniacki once quipped, “if I don’t have a weapon, then what do the others have? Since I’m No. 1, I must do something right. I think they’re not actually criticizing me. I think the other players should be offended.”

To a large degree, that was true. More often than not, Wozniacki figuratively (and literally) put the ball in her opponent’s court, seemingly begging them to put away the high ball she would plant in the middle of the court. Time and again, however, the big hitters missed that ball at a match’s most crucial junctures. They would get overexcited, they would get nervous, they would get tentative. Either way, they would hit the ball out and Wozniacki would go on to win the match.

But in the last year, something changed. The big hitters stopped missing. They began to grow in their own belief, chipping away at Caroline’s confidence in the process and causing her game to regress as a result. Now lacking her once unshakable on-court calm, she still goes for as much (or as little) as ever, but the errors have begun to pile up, allowing players like Bojana Jovanovski leverage to borrow against her own blistering groundstrokes.

Against this compromised version of Wozniacki, more risk pays off. Locked in a first set tiebreaker, the young Serb played emphatic tennis, with five of her seven points ending on a winner.  Jovanovski parlayed this momentum into a 3-0 lead in the second set, and even had two chances for a double break.

For a moment, though, it still looked like Wozniacki maintained a degree of mental ascendency over her competition. She steadied her game and made Jovanovski think about that which she was on the verge of doing: beating a top 10 player at a major tournament. Even as Jovanovski took the lead again, there were questions about whether the more mentally fragile Serb could close the deal as she served for the match. More surprising than the upset itself, Jovanovski played a calm, drama-free game to serve out the match to 15, ending Wozniacki’s clay court season with an abysmal 3-5 record (including her two wins on Charleston’s green clay).

There will be those who will look to Wozniacki’s shaken confidence as the sole contributor to a loss like this, but attention must be equally paid to the young woman who followed up a nail-biter of a win over Wozniacki in Rome with a decisive victory in Paris. The Dane is not playing with the same ruthless efficiency of two years ago, but the ball was as much in Jovanovski’s court as ever. Perhaps sick and tired of missing when it mattered most, the unseeded Serb got out of her head and bundled the struggling Wozniacki out of the tournament. For Wozniacki, there is an air of tragic irony to lose in this way. After all, it wasn’t about Jovanovski’s ability to hit her opponent off the court.

It was that Jovanovski believed she could.