food allergies

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.

“Unmasking Anastasia:” Rodionova, Tennis’ Cartoon Villain

Charleston’s illustrious Family Circle Cup began yesterday, and just off the main stadium, fans were treated to a first round match that had all the drama and suspense of a Saturday morning cartoon. Such an analogy may sound insulting, but in a match between Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Anastasia Rodionova, spectators’ notions of “good” and “evil” were as binary as black and white.

In one corner was Mattek-Sands. With her penchant for knee socks, eye black, and odd fashion choices, the veteran American certainly has the look of a modern-day superhero. Her struggles with injuries and debilitating food allergies have also played a role in endearing herself to the tennis public as she attempts to regain the form that took her as high as No. 30 in 2011.

If Mattek-Sands is the hero, then the Russian-born Australian Rodionova is our unabashed villain. Standing at 5’5”, she has become notorious for her on-court antics and bratty demeanor. A journeywoman who frequents the outer courts of most major tournaments, Rodionova berates umpires and lines people alike for their perceived incompetence and inability to properly officiate her matches. It has been questioned whether those antics have stalled an otherwise promising career; a successful doubles player, Rodionova possesses an all-court game that is often as aggressive as she is.

But to question that is to misunderstand the Aussie entirely. Indeed, she has the propensity to lose her patience, but rarely does that lead to a full-on implosion. In a world where players are concerned with likeability, Rodionova not only embraces, but truly enjoys the villainous role she adopts during matches, and like a WWE wrestler, uses the crowd’s venom against her as fuel for her own fire.

Against Mattek-Sands, she simply refused to be put away in a match that, at three hours, forty-two minutes, was the longest of the year. With the crowd firmly behind the American, Rodionova recovered from a set down to steal the second in a tiebreaker, but quickly fell behind a break in the third. Playing Mattek-Sands tough on break points (she would save 13 of 20 by match’s end), she bounded back to win three games in a row. As our villain was in her glory, our hero was in despair, and called out her husband during the changeover to try and develop a new strategy.

All of this before Rodionova injured her thigh, and here is where the show really began.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0nrXHY3LdyU&t=1m54s

For Rodionova, the type who can become enraged by an inconsiderate gust of wind, an injury (and the ineptitude of those attempting to treat her) was simply unacceptable. Dissatisfied with the trainer’s method of alleviating her pain, Rodionova hopped and hobbled away as best she could, throwing a water bottle and gesticulating wildly at the supervisor.

It was as if, after all these years, Rodionova finally had a legitimate excuse for her curmudgeonly behavior, and she planned on making the most of it. When a line call was overturned in her favor, she exclaimed, “Call the freaking ball!” (a veteran move for a player well aware of what counts as an audible obscenity). Holding a match point on the Mattek-Sands serve at 4-5, it would have appeared totally logical for our villain to let out a cackle had she converted.

But she would not convert. The match would go to a deciding tiebreaker (as if it could have ended any other way), and the injury and Mattek-Sands became too much for Rodionova, who faded quickly from 2-2.

From the cartoonish impression many have of Rodionova, one would have expected her to react to this undoubtedly painful loss with a racquet toss or a shriek of disdain: anything in a last-ditch attempt to steal the spotlight. Instead, she reminded us all of her humanity when she met Mattek-Sands at the net in tears. Our hero was gracious in victory, comforting Rodionova as the two approached the umpire.

A lot of this analysis is tongue-in-cheek, but it has been said that parody can be a mirror to the human soul. There is a tendency to turn these athletes, these people, into stereotypes or one-dimensional cutouts based on how they act over the course of a three-hour tennis match. “Mattek-Sands comforted Rodionova because she is always good, and Rodionova yelled at the trainer because she is always evil.”

But just as Mattek-Sands’ jubilation showed us how much the win meant, Rodionova’s tears showed us how much the win would have meant, and before we criticize and name-call, it is essential that we recognize that her desire to win is no less pure (or more offending) than that of a perhaps more subdued rival.