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News

A Rising American Now Has a Game as Bold as Her Style

Publication Date: 
May 26, 2011

By JOHN BRANCH

PARIS — Once again, everything but tennis dominated the conversation with Bethanie Mattek-Sands.

The eye-black patches under her eyes are there partly to cut the glare but mostly to provide a look of intimidation. The knee socks, pulled high like a school girl’s, have become a favorite part of the distinctive on-court ensemble. The tattoos on her right arm, bees on the wrist and lilies on the inside of the biceps, are works in progress. They may be joined shortly by one on her left thigh.

With Mattek-Sands, it can be easy to forget about the tennis. But one of the women’s tour’s long-running novelty acts, all straight talk and wild outfits, is now backed by a game deserving of attention all its own.

Mattek-Sands beat Varvara Lepchenko on Wednesday, 6-3, 2-6, 6-3, becoming the first American woman in five years not named Venus or Serena Williams to reach the third round of the French Open. Shenay Perry, in 2006, was the last.

In a matter of weeks, with her game rising and those of the Williams sisters idling with injuries, Mattek-Sands may be the highest-ranked American woman.

Yet there she was, all smiles and easy manners, talking less about her ranking, her victory or her next opponent — No. 10 Jelena Jankovic — than about what she wears and why.

“What’s funny, in the world of entertainment, I’m pretty mellow, actually,” Mattek-Sands said. “There are people doing a lot more crazy stuff. It’s just tennis is so conservative that I wear some high socks and people are like, ‘Wow, that’s so different.’ ”

Of course, her peers did not go backstage at the Moulin Rouge to try on costumes. They did not meet with the designer Alex Noble, a costume creator for Lady Gaga, to devise a dress for a Wimbledon player’s party made of tennis equipment — balls, racket string, whatever.

“I don’t know that I would be able to play in a meat dress or anything,” she said, smiling. “I was thinking of stapling some bacon on my shoulder or something, but I don’t know how that would work out in the sun.”

Mattek-Sands stands in sharp contrast to the tall, assembly-line models of today’s tour, all lankiness and ponytails, who tend to shuffle along the baseline and peep when exerting themselves on every fiercely whipped forehand.

She is a relative fireplug at 5 feet 6 inches. Now 26 and No. 34 in the world, she has the highest ranking of her career and only her second foray into the third round of her 21 major tournaments.

She reached the fourth round at Wimbledon in 2008, but her biggest splash in the majors has been as a sartorial seductress — wearing short shorts, push-up tops, animal prints, cowboy hats and anything else that might get people looking and talking.

“You see two girls, blond hair, wearing the exact same thing head to toe,” she said at the 2010 French Open. “If I can’t tell them apart, no way a fan’s going to tell them apart. So it just brings, you know, something unique to the game.”

This year, Mattek-Sands (she married Justin Sands, a burly, bearded former college football player, in 2008, and his name is tattooed on her ring finger) beat Spain’s Arantxa Parra Santonja in three sets in the first round. She wore a bright-yellow tank top, black visor, black shorts and black knee socks.

On Wednesday, playing before a group of people — “crowd” would be overstating it — at Court 3, she wore a pink short-sleeve shirt, a black cap, black skirt and black knee-high socks. She grounded the ensemble with black-and-neon-yellow shoes. For the first time, the curved black patches under the eyes featured a scripted “B” on them. Some peers in the locker room think the eye black is painted on.

“I’m like, ‘No guys. I don’t have that much time,’ ” Mattek-Sands said.

She mostly has toned her choices and sharpened her game. She opened the year ranked 59th and made the final at Hobart, an Australian Open tune-up. She lost in the first round of the year’s first major, then made the semifinals of February’s Paris indoor event. She has been surprisingly strong on clay the last month.

At Madrid, she beat the former French Open champions Ana Ivanovic and Francesca Schiavone before falling to No. 6 Li Na in the quarterfinals. At Rome, she beat the 15th-seeded Flavia Pennetta in her first match.

Her match on Court 3 on Wednesday was as a three-set tale of two American stereotypes: One, a straight-talking blond with the look-at-me outfits and bold tattoos. The other, a plug-away immigrant, quietly working her way to citizenship.

Lepchenko, a 25-year-old left-hander from Uzbekistan, moved to the United States in 2000. She calls Allentown, Pa., her home.

She has no American passport or citizenship, but is billed at tournaments as an American player. She trains under the United States Tennis Association and its head of player development, Patrick McEnroe.

“I’ve been playing for the U.S. for a long time, probably more than six years,” Lepchenko said. “I’ve considered every time I come out and play a tournament I represent the United States. Not as a citizen yet, but it’s just a matter of time and paperwork.”

Lepchenko has spent most of her career milling around the 100 mark in the world rankings. Currently 77th, she is part of a scrum of American women that have settled in well behind the Williams sisters and Mattek-Sands. The group includes Christina McHale (79), Melanie Oudin (88) and Coco Vandeweghe (89).

None play with the panache of Mattek-Sands.

Against Lepchenko, she overcame a second-set lull, the type of energetic lapse that threatens her performances. She found fire during the break, and gave a lesson in aggressiveness to start the third set.

On the first point, with Lepchenko serving, Mattek-Sands hit a bold return and followed it toward the net. Lepchenko’s ball struck the net cord and, somehow, Mattek-Sands’s racket. It landed, in, and Lepchenko took another swipe. Mattek-Sands, a veteran doubles player, spanked it back for the point. Love-15.

The next point, Mattek-Sands rushed in to take a lazy ball on the fly. Love-30.

All attitude and ferocity, she went on to break Lepchenko twice to take a 3-0 lead, then did it again for the victory.

“I would like to do that the whole match rather than just in the third set,” Mattek-Sands said. “But that’s how I like to play.”

And with that, the conversation turned. Someone wanted to talk about socks.