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Steve Flink: Bethanie Mattek-Sands shines on rainy day in Paris

5/31/2013 8:00:00 AM

Over the course of the first five days of this French Open, there were not many dramatic developments. The ever enigmatic Tomas Berdych—seeded fifth— was ushered out of the tournament in a five set, first round clash against the dynamic Gael Monfils. Rafael Nadal had a first round scare against an unconsciously brilliant Daniel Brands, recouping after losing the opening set and trailing 0-3 in a second set tie-break. Monfils prevailed in another stirring contest against Ernests Gulbis, who remains maddening in so many ways.

But the most significant upset of those first five days was irrefutably a come from behind, three set victory recorded by Bethanie Mattek-Sands. She toppled No. 6 seed Li Na 5-7, 6-3, 6-2 in the second round, and did so with considerable flair, remarkable poise and a resilience she has often lacked in the past. I freely admit that I have not been an ardent admirer of Mattek Sands across the years. She wears those outlandish outfits that strike me as very unbecoming. She has been unreliable over time, a better ball striker than competitor, a player who has seemed prone to immense mood swings and shot selection that has often left a lot to be desired.

And yet, I give Mattek Sands high marks for originality. She has stuck to her zany attire no matter what anyone thinks about it. She has played the game largely on her own terms, going for broke from the backcourt, coming forward at unexpected times, structuring points with verve and imagination. Sometimes her strategy has backfired. Often she has been found wanting in the tight corners of important contests. On occasion, she has performed indifferently and perhaps has not done justice to the dedication she has exhibited over the years.

But, in striking down Li Na, Mattek-Sands delivered on a promise she must have made to herself long ago—to not be intimidated by players with larger reputations. She had some bad stretches and loose patches. She wasted a terrific first set comeback against an opponent who was surprisingly vulnerable. She could have lost in straight sets. But Mattek-Sands never stopped believing in herself or her chances, and came away with by far the best win of her career. Li Na had, after all, won the French Open in 2011, claiming her one and only major crown. She has also been in two Australian Open finals, losing a three set confrontation with Kim Clijsters in 2011, bowing in a hard fought clash with Victoria Azarenka this year. Clearly, Li knows her way around the territory of the majors, and has what it takes to win in big settings.

Mattek-Sands had never beaten her accomplished adversary before, and in the early stages of this battle at Roland Garros, the script seemed certain to be repeated. Mattek-Sands is an audacious player who is unafraid to go for the lines, and unwilling to compromise when she sees openings on the court. But she could not find her range in the rallies at the outset, and Li Na was reasonably sharp, very purposeful and highly concentrated. Mattek-Sands had a game point on serve at the start of the match, but Li erased it, broke serve for 1-0, and the Chinese superstar was off and running.

On this rainy day in Paris, the prospects for Mattek-Sands appeared to be gloomy. Li Na held easily for 2-0, broke for 3-0, and then held commandingly at love for 4-0. She held the upper hand in most of the baseline exchanges, and her match playing prowess seemed much better than anything Mattek-Sands might have to offer. But Mattek-Sands commenced the fifth game with an ace down the T, held at 15, broke Li at 30, then held at love again in the seventh game. That three game surge clearly unnerved Li to a degree. Serving in the eighth game, Li released three double faults, including consecutive doubles from 40-30. Li’s flat forehand went wayward, and Mattek-Sands soon made it to 4-4. She then held at 30 for 5-4 with a service winner.

The American had captured no fewer than five games in a row, building momentum in the process, leaving Li Na in a bind. Suddenly, the No. 6 seed was serving to stay in the opening set at 4-5. But she rose admirably to that challenge, holding at 15 for 5-5, breaking at love for 6-5, and holding at 15 to close out the set on a three game run of her own. Li had secured 12 of 14 points to salvage the first set, reestablishing her authority, picking Mattek-Sands apart with pace and precision, making her experience count. Perhaps in the past, Mattek-Sands might have sunk into despondency and lost all of her confidence, but not this time. She built a 4-1 second set lead before a long rain delay. When the players returned, Li seemed reinvigorated. She held at love for 2-4 and then broke Mattek-Sands in the seventh game with a backhand return struck with excellent depth. Mattek-Sands was provoked into a backhand error.

Li had the break and was back on serve at 3-4. Rain intruded again. But this time, it was Mattek-Sands who benefitted from the delay. She proceeded to take two clutch games in a row to make it one set all, and then charged all the way to 5-0 in the third. At break point in the first game of that final set, Mattek-Sands cracked a magnificent forehand inside-in return winner with effortless pace. She held for 2-0, and then, at break point for 3-0, the American made another sparkling shot on a crucial point, producing a topspin lob winner off the backhand with Li stranded helplessly at the net. Mattek-Sands advanced to 4-0 and then played a superb game to get yet another break of serve for 5-0. In the closing stages of that game, Mattek-Sands unleashed a flat backhand winner up the line, a flat forehand return winner down the line, and a dazzling backhand return winner down the line. That was top of the line stuff.

Rain was falling harder again. Mattek-Sands was broken at 15 in the sixth game and Li held easily in the seventh. It was 5-2. Mattek-Sands served for the match a second time, and composed herself exceedingly well. At 15-15, she came forward with conviction, and punched a forehand crosscourt volley cleanly into a wide open space. On the next point, Mattek-Sands drove a forehand crosscourt for a clean winner that gave her double match point, and she then ended the battle with a scorching backhand down the line that Li could not handle.

And so Bethanie Mattek-Sands moved into the third round with her triumph over Li. That is no mean feat. She would surely like to take this triumph and use it as the impetus to register more victories at Roland Garros, but even if she does not, a crucial moment must be celebrated. This was the first tournament in all of 2013 for the American in which she gained direct entry. In her eight previous appearances, she had qualified five times and received wildcards thrice. In 2012, she had suffered from back and left hip injuries, making only nine appearances in main draws. She slipped decidedly from her No. 55 ranking at the end of 2011 to No. 173 upon the conclusion of 2012. Mattek-Sands turned 28 in March, and making a comeback of this importance has been no easy thing. Prior to her win over Li Na at Roland Garros, this enduring American competitor had lost 21 of 24 career appointments against players ranked among the top ten in the world. Regardless of when she loses at this major, Mattek-Sands can use her major upset of Li to climb toward loftier goals and higher achievements in the weeks and months ahead. She currently stands at No. 67 in the world, but the feeling grows that, even with her limitations, Mattek-Sands—who reached a career high of No. 30 back in 2011—is going to play the finest tennis of her career over the next 12 to 18 months.

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Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for tennischannel.com since 2007. You can purchase Steve's latest book "The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time" here.