On the surface, for the most part, in the heat of competition, tennis is a supremely lonely sport. The solo act is at the heart of the sport, creating a DNA that can often be quite insular - from the ways so many players avoid making eye contact, to the headsets they often wear, to the sport’s persistently fractured mélange of organizations.
And then one scream bursts the entire bubble. Thursday on Court 17 at Wimbledon it came from Bethanie Mattek-Sands, the extremely likeable player who has come back many times from injuries. Early in the second set of her second round match versus Sorana Cirstea, Mattek-Sands made the kind of tactical decision that has long made her a compelling player. She took a Cirstea serve and approached the net - at which point she fell to the ground, clutched her knee and immediately screamed, “Help me, please! Help me!” Screams, then sobs.
Instantly, Sands’ husband, Justin, came to the court to comfort her. Cirstea followed. Medical help was summoned. Then, running to the court from the locker room, awaiting the start of her own singles match, came Mattek-Sands’ doubles partner, Lucie Safarova. “Every person who is close to Bethanie was really sad and shocked,” said Safarova.
And all through Wimbledon, through this sprawling club that houses the biggest tournament in tennis, players, ex-players, coaches and discussed matters related to knees, tendons, ligaments, kneecaps, surgeons and, as well, the timetable involved with recovering from such an injury. In other words, in a workplace that celebrates health and youth and never-ending sunshine, all for that moment were forced to ponder something entirely different: mortality.
Here was Mattek-Sands, 32 years old - in tennis terms, well into the veteran phase of her career. But surely, also, given her appetite for the game and her eclectic playing style, someone who hardly ever came off as jaded or eager to leave tennis (in contrast, say, to Marat Safin or, more recently, Bernard Tomic). It hardly seemed fair that this horrible injury should happen to someone with her brand of zest. But it had.
“Cases like today, no, it reminds you, it was just bad luck,’ said Cirstea. “It wasn’t that she did anything wrong. Cases like this remind you you should be grateful and feel lucky for what you have. Just be healthy, because you never when it’s changing.”
There will be tweets and posts, updates and intermittent photos, perhaps one of Mattek-Sands smiling as she begins the long road to recovery, rehab and, hopefully, return. Working in Mattek-Sands’ favor will be a tennis attribute far more favorable than insularity -- tenacity.