On Mattek-Sands and the Importance of Great Movement
It was the type of interview that would cause most tennis fans to cringe, hit the mute button, change the channel, or throw the remote through the television. Bethanie Mattek-Sands and her husband Justin Sands sat across from John Inverdale of the UK’s ITV network at Roland Garros. Fresh off her massive upset of Li Na and with a day off, Mattek-Sands was as relaxed and jovial as possible. The win and eventual fourth round finish at Roland Garros was one of the best upsets and weeks of Bethanie’s tennis career.
John Inverdale’s tennis knowledge is not exactly comprehensive, to put it mildly. It was likely that he knew little to nothing of Mattek-Sands before getting the chance to talk to her husband in Paris. What followed was a suited British man genuinely intrigued by an energetic American couple – one, a tennis player with wacky hair, another a burly American farm boy with a bright shirt and the phrase “@BMATTEK” written on it (Mattek-Sands’ Twitter handle).
Bethanie got a chance to share her story of realizing she was allergic to not just one, but up to 20 different types of foods, and how a changed diet had kept away sickness and kept her energy high. Her love of crazy hair and clothes came through in her overall positive outlook and interest in keeping things fresh while on tour. Her husband spoke honestly about his support and love for his wife, and the commitment he had made to not just her, but her tennis career.
To some, it might have been over the top. To me, it was quite endearing an honest. The American became a player I promised myself to keep an eye on.
An improved diet is an easy narrative to follow, particularly one involving the realization of food allergies. One would not only expect it to help professional athletes, but just about anyone. Djokovic switching to a gluten-free diet helped spark countless narratives, as did Mardy Fish’s past weight loss.
But what does this diet change mean for Mattek-Sands in particular, and how does it manifest itself in her on-court play?
The best players in the world inspire all sorts incredible hyperbole – often with good reason. Rafael Nadal has a myriad of nicknames and catch phrases associated with him. “The King of Clay”, his mental toughness, his ability to fight, “plays every point like it’s his last”.
Most of these fun phrases tend to dance around something Nadal does better than most humans to ever play the sport – move well, and move often. Nadal’s ability to take several small steps to adjust his body and angle allow him to create incredible angles, make fewer errors, hit with great depth, and ultimately make better decisions. His incredible fitness allows him to keep this up well into long matches.
Movement and small adjustments in footwork are important for any tennis player, but can make a world of difference for players at the very top of the game.
So, how has Mattek-Sands’ movement improved, and how has her approach changed?
Let’s take a look at a clip from the 2010 US Open…
Bethanie has never been a player that has been an excellent mover, in my eye, and this first point, as well as the point at 3-3 ad demonstrates this. The first two shots after her initial serve are a backhand and forehand. She sets up incredibly early on the backhand and largely muscles the ball over the net through her upper body. On the second shot, she takes all of two steps on a ball in the middle of the court to simply fire it back centrally. Eventually, she fails to get to her spot in time to hit a backhand, her racquet head speed can’t make up for lack of foot speed, and she fires a backhand down the line well wide.
This highlights package does teach us a couple of positive things about Mattek-Sands, however. For one, she is both excellent and comfortable at the net. Secondly, she can hit big when given a short ball. In other words, she has excellent instincts when it comes to finishing points quickly and effectively.
However, a player needs to reach the stage where coming to net or putting away a short ball presents itself. The point at 3-3 ad demonstrates some clear problems with Mattek-Sands’s game at that time.
In this point she struggles desperately for depth. Petkovic is being moved around, but she is given plenty of time to hit the ball back effectively. Mattek-Sands quickly looks for an answer and is forced into an ill advised drop shot that is taken care of by Petkovic and ends with a Mattek-Sands error.
Let’s compare that to some highlights from her win over Radwanska in Sydney, 2014.
This point is particularly fantastic from Bethanie. She reaches the ball well in time to hammer it and hit it deep. Even on the one forehand, she is able to hit effectively well on the run instead of trying to set and hit an ineffective ball into the middle of the court. This keeps Radwanska pinned back and eventually allows Mattek-Sands to finish wonderfully at net. Instead of having to draw her opponent in to introduce net play, Bethanie kept her opponent back and did the rest of the work herself.
The following point is impressive, and a type of point Mattek-Sands might not have been able to do or even try several years ago. Watch Bethanie’s feet, as well as the depth of her shot. At no point is she not on top of this rally – she gets to the ball with lots of time, hits with excellent depth which consistently brings out medium length replies from Radwanska. Instead of becoming impatient and hitting a drop shot, she keeps the pressure on and eventually sizes up a ball she likes for an excellent down the line forehand winner. There is also a point later on in the set that Mattek-Sands is still comfortable using drop shot trickery, and to great effect.
Ultimately, tennis incorporates many different physical aspects such as speed and strength, decision making, and is an incredible test of stamina for anyone. However, excellent footwork and small adjustments allow players to do what they do best. Mattek-Sands is a strong player capable of hitting with great pace, and is beginning to use that on a much more consistent basis to overwhelm excellent players.
Bethanie, you have a new fan.