Last fall Bethanie Mattek-Sands was not playing tennis. She was not dieting; she was not even working out.
She ate ice cream in the mornings, baked lots of cookies and did not so much as touch a racquet for three months or do any cardiovascular exercise.
It was not a typical professional player's off-season regime but for Mattek-Sands, 25, it was just what she needed to rest both her back injury and her mind.
She entered 2010 completely healthy for the first time in years (and lost several pounds on her ice cream diet, in fact) and physically and emotionally more prepared than ever to start the new season. And the results and confidence have been coming as she works her way back up the rankings and is finally able to play the aggressive, all-court style of tennis that she is best at with a pain-free body.
Mattek-Sands has dealt with multiple injuries throughout the years, dating back to her junior days, including a hip injury that kept her off the tour in early 2009 and the back injury late in the season. So far in 2010, however, she has not missed a tournament and came into the US Open feeling extremely ready in both singles and doubles.
"I took three months and did nothing (last fall). It was awesome," Mattek-Sands said. "Resting my back was huge. I think emotionally then I was ready to roll (for this year). I felt good. I am not tired, I can actually feel fresh and wake up the next day and still feel fresh.
"I have experienced everything," she added of her injury history. "Overall as far as health-wise I am feeling really good, it is probably the best I have felt in a long time. It is giving me more confidence knowing that I can stick in the points longer. I am able to move and cover the court and I feel good doing it. It allows me to just go out there relaxed and playing my game."
Mattek-Sands, now ranked No. 76 in singles and No. 16 in doubles, has played a lot of matches this year from playing singles qualifying for a bunch of tournaments and just being physically healthy. It has been extremely beneficial for her in fact, to come into the US Open having played so many matches, including during the Olympus US Open Series this summer. She qualified for and reached the second round in Montreal, where she lost a three-set match to defending US Open champion Kim Clijsters, and also qualified in New Haven and then reached the round of 16.
"I felt really good," Mattek-Sands said. "This is the most matches probably I have played in a year, especially in the Olympus US Open Series. I played a ton of qualies and doubles matches, this whole year really and because I had to play qualies, it was pretty much three extra matches every event so I felt very match tough coming here (to the US Open)."
In Flushing Meadows, she entered singles (for which she received direct entry), women's doubles with Meghann Shaughnessy and mixed doubles with Daniel Nestor. In singles, she came from a set down to defeat Anabel Medina Garrigues in three sets and then lost a tough three-setter in the second round to Andrea Petkovic.
For doubles, Mattek-Sands has played with several different partners this year, including Shaughnessy for a few tournaments, and they make a great team in part because they are good friends and live near each other in Arizona. Coming into the US Open, they reached the final in New Haven and are the No. 15 seeds in Flushing Meadows. They defeated Caroline Wozniacki and Daniela Hantuchova Friday to reach the third round.
"Meg and I are playing really well as a team now. It is always different playing doubles at the Slams because you play the third set out, you play deuce. Some of the other tournaments it feels our matches are so quick because of the no-ad and third set tiebreaker. It is a little different but we are feeling good," Mattek-Sands said. "What makes us work so well is that we are good friends. We get along; she lives 15 minutes away from me. We have trained together; we have inside jokes, which I think makes everyone more comfortable. It is sometimes tough if you play with someone where you can't speak the language or it is your first time playing together but with me and Meg that is not the case."
She also enjoys the fun of playing mixed doubles - and with Nestor are the No. 4 seeds - that is a little more relaxed without any ranking points on the line.
As part of the changes in her preparations this year, Mattek-Sands also started working with a new coach, Adam Altschuler, who has been traveling with her and she also has her husband, Justin Sands, with her on the road.
"Mentally I think this is the best I have felt," Mattek-Sands added. "I have a great team around me, I think that is huge. I have the right trainers, fitness, recovery, coach and it is big, I have my husband with me. I think all corners are really covered right now."
Along with Altschuler, Mattek-Sands breaks down all of her strokes and videotapes both her matches and her practices, which has allowed her to pick up things she had never realized while she was playing and has also helped her with strategies.
They started videotaping her matches at the tournament in Memphis earlier this year and Mattek-Sands immediately noticed her serve motion did not look right, explaining why she had not been getting as much power on her serves as she would like and made adjustments after watching herself.
"The first thing was my serve," she said of what she picked up. "I noticed my arm was pretty stiff and straight and went out to my side when I was taking my racquet up. I want it to be behind me and more loose. I said, 'Why am I serving like that? I can't believe it.' I was wondering why I wasn't getting a lot of pop on my serve.
"It is a big difference, with the serve my consistency went up. (But) I am still breaking stuff down. I still want to work on getting more pop on my serve but that problem really helped me with consistency," she added.
While watching herself on video, Mattek-Sands also discovered the reason why she had been missing a lot of shots and that she needed to work on her movement. Fixing both has tremendously helped her be more consistent with her groundstrokes.
"I figured out with my movement, I wasn't split stepping early enough, I was split stepping after (the opponent) hit, so I was not reacting fast enough," she added. "Also, awhile ago, I started missing a lot of my shots and I didn't know what was going on, I felt the same, but on video my upper body was bending over. I was bending over and loosing my balance, making me more inconsistent."
So far it has been going well, as her singles ranking is steadily climbing back up (her career high is No. 37 in 2008) and she remains one of the best doubles players in the world, including winning the title at Ponte Vedra Beach in April with Yan Zi.
April was a great month for her in fact as she was the hero of the U.S. Fed Cup Team's semifinal victory over Russia in Birmingham, Ala. With the U.S. facing elimination, Mattek-Sands rallied to defeat Ekaterina Makarova in the fourth singles rubber and then just 30 minutes later teamed with Liezel Huber to clinch the tie in the doubles match to send the U.S. to the final in November against Italy for the second straight year.
With her victories, she became the first player in U.S. Fed Cup Team history to win consecutive live matches (one singles and one doubles) to clinch a tie victory. It was an unbelievable weekend for Mattek-Sands personally that had her confidence flowing even more and was the best experience of her tennis career.
"Those victories gave me a ton of confidence," she said. "In all the Fed Cups I have played, I have played really good players and had good wins. The last one in Alabama, I played a great match against Elena Dementieva, I lost, but I felt like I played really well. And then to have the win over Makarova was great. It was such a cool experience. I know I have said this before, but it was the highlight of my career so far. The wins and playing well as I did gave me a ton of confidence coming over to Europe."
U.S. Fed Cup Captain Mary Joe Fernandez was extremely proud of Mattek-Sands' sensational efforts in Birmingham and has now had her on three Fed Cup teams, including for the quarterfinal win over France in February.
"She knows her game. She knows what she's looking to do out there," Fernandez said. "It's just a few reminders here (that Fernandez shares), if I see any pattern that really stands out, to be able to share it.
"It's an amazing effort," she added of Mattek-Sands' quick turnaround from singles to doubles in Alabama. "It's always tough to have to play back to back Fed Cup, singles, doubles. Thirty minutes is not a lot of time to turn around. But she did a great job trying to eat, trying to stretch, trying to tape everything and getting out there."
The Europe swing was solid then for Mattek-Sands, who won her first round matches in Rome, Roland Garros and Birmingham before losing a close first round match at Wimbledon. And just knowing she can play week-to-week without having one part of her body limit her in one way or another has been continued to be a huge victory in itself.
In the spring she also made the decision to commit five percent of her prize money from Roland Garros through the US Open to the victims of the devastating Nashville floods. Nashville was the city where Mattek-Sands played her first USTA tournament at age 11 and along with Sands, really wanted to do something to help. The couple is also looking to possibly start a foundation and continue various forms of charity work, perhaps involving St. Jude's Children's Hospital in Memphis or some causes near their home in Phoenix, Ariz.
"I have not made a ton of money but for what I have done and recognition I have gotten, I want to bring some awareness to people who need help," Mattek-Sands said.
For Mattek-Sands, her breakout year on the WTA Tour was in 2008 as she reached the fourth round of Wimbledon, reached her first WTA Tour final (at Quebec City) and in early 2009, reached No. 37 in the world. It was also the year she married Sands, after a relationship that started with love-at-first-sight when she first moved to Phoenix.
She learned a lot about what worked in her game and regime that year - and has continued those strategies and practices - and also ditched the funky on-court outfits that many people had known her best for in previous years. The outfits originally started back in 2005 at the Australian Open after Adidas cut her sponsorship. But it has now been several years since she wore an outfit that generated a lot of buzz, such as the cowboy hat, the leopard skin or the gold lame that surfaced in the past.
Mattek-Sands is still known for her upbeat, effervescent personality and definitely has a unique style - she wore a black wedding dress and continues to wear high socks when she plays - but she changes what she wears, her hair and the styles she puts together based on how she feels. Her likes have changed and continue to change. Some recent additions are tattoos on her right arm with bees on the forearm from her childhood nickname of 'Killer B' and lotus flowers on the inside of her upper arm, which is still a work in progress.
But being known for her fashion choices over her tennis it not something Mattek-Sands wants.
"I am playing tennis for recognition of my tennis skills. It is what I have worked hard at. As much shopping as I've done, I have put in more my hours on the court than any mall. It is my No. 1 priority and it always has been," she said. "I have different likes now. Things maybe I have liked when I was 16, I have gotten into different things now. It is not can and can't (wear something), I have not put that thought on myself, I am just constantly changing.
"I think right now I have been more conservative," she added. "I have been in a more conservative mood in general, even off the court, it is more relaxed and more comfortable. I have to say, my clothing and everything, hair, kind of goes along with my mood. They change here and there but being 25 now, I never really thought of it, I can't wear something. I think people are as old as they want to be and feel. Both me and Justin feel that way."
Having Sands in her life and with her on the tour most of this year has been tremendous as well. Sands owns an insurance company in Arizona and is flexible with doing work via the phone and email while on the road with his wife. Unlike most married couples, the two are together almost 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Sands, a former college football player, works out alongside Mattek-Sands doing fitness training and uses his great organizational skills to handle most of the logistics for her such as scheduling practice courts and transportation.
"He knows me so well," Mattek-Sands said. "He knows my moods, my personality and he is really good at saying the right things. He himself being an athlete, playing football, he knows what I have to go through, what I need to do workout wise. It is great to have someone who understands everything that goes into being an athlete; I think that is one of the biggest things that make us click.
"He keeps things on track and it is just unbelievable," she said. "It has been awesome since he has been traveling with me, I feel so much more relaxed."
And Sands is happy to do it all for his wife and be with her on the road, and thinks it has only made them grow closer while he has watched her grow as a person and a player.
"I would like to think I am doing a good job in helping her," Sands said. "She has grown as a person and we have as a married couple. We are together more than most married couples, other than those that are on tour. We spend all day together and it is just phenomenal. People say, 'Well you are recently married.' But we are coming up on two years later and we are together every single day, all day. It works out great. We don't ever argue. We don't ever have issues. We just communicate really well, which I think is a big thing especially being around each other all the time.
"She has always been out there to work hard and push herself," he added. "I think it comes with time. She has the coach she feels the most comfortable with right now, and I am here to support her and here to help her."
And Mattek-Sands is hoping to keep the healthy and consistent play going through the rest of 2010 and beyond.
"I think I have gone through so many injuries; I am trying to enjoy the chances I do get to play. You never know what is going to happen the next week or the next month or the next year," she said. "It is imperative for me to just go out and enjoy and do my best and try my hardest. I am a competitor for sure."