Up­beat re­cov­ery af­ter in­jury that shook Wim­ble­don

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - TENNIS/FOOTBALL/HOCKEY -

Bethanie Mat­tek-Sands still can­not bring her­self to watch video re­play of the mo­ment that led to the scream heard ’round the world.

In the first game of the third set of her sec­ond-round match against So­rana Cirstea at Wim­ble­don two weeks ago, Mat­tek-Sands was ap­proach­ing the net when her right knee buck­led, send­ing her sprawl­ing on the grass court and hol­ler­ing for help.

“I lived it,” Mat­tek-Sands said Wed­nes­day. “I don’t need to see it.”

One glance at the kneecap that had rup­tured and dis­lo­cated so badly that it was pushed up into her quadri­ceps was enough. Mat­tek-Sands’ ex­ple­tive-laden pleas to Cirstea were heard not only by ev­ery­one court­side but around the world via live tele­vi­sion feeds. Her hus­band, Justin Sands, ran to her side and cov­ered the dam­aged limb with a towel.

“I just re­mem­ber go­ing up to the net and hear­ing a loud pop,” Mat­tek-Sands, 32, said. “I felt like my leg couldn’t sup­port me. Then I looked at it and it didn’t even make sense. I thought I could ad­just it and put it back in place, but I couldn’t. That’s when I screamed, ‘Help me.’”

The scene and the in­jury shook Wim­ble­don. So beloved is Mat­tek-Sands by her fel­low play­ers that she has re­ceived hun­dreds of get-well mes­sages from mem­bers of the WTA and ATP tours.

Three days af­ter be­ing car­ried off the court on a stretcher to a wait­ing am­bu­lance, Mat­tek-Sands and her hus­band were en route to New York, and two days af­ter that, she had surgery to re­pair a com­plete patel­lar ten­don rup­ture.

De­spite the or­deal, her dis­po­si­tion was as sunny as the col­or­ful out­fit she wore to a phys­i­cal ther­apy ses­sion Wed­nes­day.

At noon, Mat­tek-Sands, trailed by her hus­band, ap­peared in the door­way of the sports re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion fa­cil­ity at the Hos­pi­tal for Spe­cial Surgery on New York’s up­per East Side. Her punc­tu­al­ity was star­tling, given that her dou­bles part­ner, Lu­cie Sa­farova, said last year that the only thing that Mat­tek-Sands is bad at is be­ing on time.

Mat­tek-Sands, on crutches, wore a cum­ber­some black brace sup­port­ing her right leg and, on her left, a bright pink com­pres­sion sock — the kind she wears dur­ing matches as both a fashion state­ment and to aid in cir­cu­la­tion. She sported bright, flower-cov­ered track shorts, black patent-leather sneakers and round re­flec­tor sun­glasses.

Wait­ing for her was Ioonna Felix, a phys­i­cal ther­a­pist with whom Mat­tek-Sands also worked af­ter hip surgery in 2014. The task at hand was to re­duce edema, or swelling, in the kneecap be­fore at­tempt­ing, ever so slowly and care­fully, to be­gin in­creas­ing range of mo­tion.

Mat­tek-Sands proclaimed her pain level as be­tween four and seven out of 10. Still, she weaned her­self off pain med­i­ca­tion af­ter just two days, opt­ing in­stead for ice packs and, on oc­ca­sion, a shot of te­quila.

“With this kind of surgery, you re­ally have to re­spect the heal­ing process,” Felix said. “At this point, there are a lot of re­stric­tions.”

Mat­tek-Sands and her hus­band made the small, non­de­script room feel like a com­edy club. Sands, a for­mer col­lege foot­ball player, sports a giant “Bethanie” tat­too across his fore­arm as well as the dates of four of her Grand Slam dou­bles and mixed dou­bles cham­pi­onships (he has not had time to add last year’s U.S. Open and this year’s Aus­tralian and French ti­tles, all won with Sa­farova).

He used his phone to record his wife’s ev­ery goofy word and move­ment to share on In­sta­gram. To­gether, they laughed loud and long.

They have started an In­sta­gram story se­ries called In Bed with Bethanie, a nod to the vis­i­tors who have stopped by the apart­ment they are staying in dur­ing her re­hab. The apart­ment is lit­tered with flo­ral ar­range­ments and food de­liv­er­ies, in­clud­ing home­made pies by Sands’ par­ents and tacos sent by CoCo Van­deweghe. Adam Altschuler, Mat­tek-Sands’ long­time coach, flew in from Bu­dapest to be with them, and Sa­farova and Kathy Ri­naldi, the Amer­i­can Fed Cup cap­tain, check in daily.

The cou­ple plans to be in New York for an­other week, then con­tinue ther­apy at the Con­way Clinic in Pennsylvania be­fore fi­nally re­turn­ing to their Ari­zona home and to Ruger, their 140-pound Bo­er­boel. Mat­tek-Sands’ great­est fear is that the play­ful dog may try to put his heavy head on her heal­ing leg.

Dur­ing the ther­apy ses­sion, Dr. David Altchek, who per­formed Mat­tek-Sands’ surgery, ar­rived to check on his pa­tient. He was pleased by the min­i­mal swelling he saw, and en­cour­aged Felix to push the bend­ing ex­er­cise, gen­tly fold­ing the knee from 20 de­grees to nearly 35. Ev­ery­one was thrilled, most of all Mat­tek-Sands, who said her great­est frus­tra­tion was need­ing help to put on her socks and sneakers.

“This is not a typ­i­cal in­jury,” said Altchek, who has op­er­ated on count­less pro­fes­sional ath­letes. “We see this in the NFL and the NBA, but I have never op­er­ated on a pro­fes­sional ten­nis player for a rup­tured patel­lar ten­don be­cause their foot­work and bal­ance are so good. Bethanie’s just too strong for her body. But this is def­i­nitely not a ca­reer-en­der for her.”

Altchek said that he saw no rea­son Mat­tek-Sands could not make a full re­cov­ery but that it would not be a quick one. In­juries like hers re­quire a min­i­mum of six months off court, he said, and three to six more be­fore she will prob­a­bly be able to re­join the tour.

Mat­tek-Sands is the No. 1ranked dou­bles player (and No. 90 in sin­gles), and she and Sa­farova were the top-seeded pair­ing at Wim­ble­don. Had they won the ti­tle, they would have been the reign­ing cham­pi­ons at all four Grand Slam tour­na­ments.

Mat­tek-Sands was also in line to lead the United States against Be­larus in its first Fed Cup fi­nal since 2010. She has not yet de­cided whether she will travel to Minsk in Novem­ber to cheer on the team, but she has plans to be in New York for the U.S. Open next month, pos­si­bly to do some tele­vi­sion com­men­tary.

Mat­tek-Sands has not had the time or where­withal to dwell on the what-could-have-beens. She has been in­jured too many times in her 18-year ca­reer.

“Hon­estly, I’m tak­ing it one day at a time,” said Mat­tek-Sands, who said she wants to start a fam­ily, but not un­til she is sure her play­ing days are over. “With my other in­juries, I’ve rushed back be­cause of FOMO, my fear of miss­ing out. I’m go­ing to en­joy this time off and make a list of the things I’ve al­ways wanted to do but haven’t had the chance. The in­jury will heal it­self. Stress­ing about it won’t make it go any faster.”

Mat­tek-Sands stud­ies the Pin­ter­est app on her iPhone fre­quently. It con­tains thou­sands of quotes that she uses to draw in­spi­ra­tion and mo­ti­va­tion. While end­ing her ther­apy ses­sion with some up­per-body work on an arm bike, Mat­tek-Sands scrolled through the quotes un­til she found the right one.

“You may not be able to con­trol ev­ery sit­u­a­tion and its out­come,” she re­cited, “but you can con­trol your at­ti­tude and how you deal with it.”

At least for now, they are her words to live by.


Bethanie Mat­tek-Sands of the United States re­turns the ball to Ro­ma­nia’s So­rana Cirstea on July 6 dur­ing their Women’s Sin­gles Match at the Wim­ble­don Ten­nis Cham­pi­onships in Lon­don.

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