Bethanie Mattek-Sands serves upset
PARIS -- Li Na walked onto Court 1, the oldest court at Roland Garros, wearing a light blue top with the Mercedes logo on one shoulder, the name of a Chinese insurance company on the other and a Nike logo on the chest. She wore a visor with a Nike logo, a skirt with a Nike logo and, of course, shoes with Nike logos.
Her opponent, meanwhile, did not wear any logos on her clothes. Bethanie Mattek-Sands is famous for her outfits -- she once wore a dress accented with tennis balls to a Wimbledon party -- but after 14 years as a pro, including several rough, injury-riddled recent seasons, she doesn't currently have a clothing sponsor. So Thursday she wore a sporty outfit with a black baseball cap, black knee-high socks and a green-sleeved baseball-style under-jersey.
She looked a little like a 1930s newsboy. But instead of delivering newspapers, Mattek-Sands delivered the biggest upset of this year's French Open so far by beating the 2011 champ 5-7, 6-3, 6-2.
The outcome was so shocking -- Li had never lost in the second round at Roland Garros -- that the first question posed to Li after the match was whether she was healthy. (She insisted she was.)
So it wasn't easy for Mattek-Sands. In fact, due to three rain delays, it took her roughly six hours to beat the woman Time magazine recently listed as one of the 100 most influential people in the world.
Actually, it took much longer than that. Mattek-Sands, 28, has been a pro since she was 14 in 1999 and rose as high as 39th in the world rankings. But she was struggling and playing so little due to injuries in recent years -- among them a torn hip labrum, a bad shoulder and a broken foot -- that she fell to No. 173 and considered retiring last summer.
"I got to the point where I couldn't even play my game," she said. "I couldn't even work out. I couldn't move as fast as I know I could because I was hurting. That's just so frustrating, to know how I can play but I'm playing down [at a lower level].
"That's the reason I was thinking, 'I don't even want to play tennis right now. It's too frustrating.' But I love tennis. And I didn't really want to quit. But I was starting to have no other option. It was just too frustrating to play like that. But I was able to make some changes and get out of that place."
Among those was her diet. She was diagnosed with 26 food allergies in November -- to such items as gluten, dairy, garlic and pineapples -- and changing her diet changed everything.
"She's a whole different person," said her husband, Justin Sands. "Even our relationship. She's not as short as she can be at times. More understanding, more patient. A lot of that you don't realize how systemically you're affected. Plus, the stresses of being a pro athlete and trying to make it toward the end of your career.
"She goes by what Mardy Fish said when he got to No. 8 the other year. 'I'm just trying to get my years on the back end.' That's what she's trying to do."
Finally healthy enough to play consistently this year -- "just being able to walk, that's a big plus for me" -- Mattek-Sands has risen back to No. 67. Still, that's quite a bit lower than Li's No. 6 ranking. And she quickly fell behind Li 0-4 in the first set Thursday.
Then something happened. Mattek-Sands dug in and got tough while Li got rattled. Li double-faulted three times in one game while Mattek-Sands rallied to take a 5-4 lead. Li recovered to come back and win the first set 7-5, but it was all Mattek-Sands after that.
"I just got a little mad [at 0-4] because I had missed a couple of shots I shouldn't have," Mattek-Sands said. "I just really mentally got down and said, 'OK, what's my game plan here? What am I going to do to win these points?' I had to be aggressive against her, because otherwise she was going to be aggressive on me and win that battle."
That's another part of her comeback. In addition to being healthy, Mattek-Sands said she is also playing smarter, planning her game and her shots ahead of time.
"I had always kind of winged it on the court, and it's kind of nice having a plan," she said. "Not that it necessarily goes that way all the time."
It did Thursday. Repeatedly frustrating Li with wonderful drop shots, Mattek-Sands took a 4-1 lead in the second set. And then the rains fell, forcing a lengthy delay. Play resumed briefly before another rain shower delayed the set for more than an hour. The third set was also delayed about 10 minutes.
Li insisted the rain delays didn't affect her any more than they did Mattek-Sands, but the American handled them better. She won seven consecutive games in one stretch while Li whiffed at one returnable serve and later awkwardly swung and hit a ball behind her.
When Mattek-Sands buried a shot to get to match point, she shouted "Come on!" Moments later, a Li return went into the net and Mattek-Sands had perhaps the biggest upset of her career.
"I actually thought her ball was going to drop over the net," she said. "That's why I think I was kind of surprised after I won it."
She wasn't alone. But she could go even further. In the third round, Mattek-Sands plays Paula Ormaechea, who is ranked 118th. What will she wear for that? She didn't say but emphasized she wants to be known more for her game than her fashion.
"I'm kind of doing my own thing," she said earlier this week about her outfits. "I want my tennis to do my talking."