She has bucked tradition at Wimbledon by wearing a Lady Gaga-inspired warmup jacket and player-party gown made of tennis balls. She has donned a cowboy hat at the U.S. Open. She is partial to knee-high socks and eye black, and she keeps everyone guessing about her hair color (as of this writing, it was a hazy shade of blue and purple).
Bethanie Mattek-Sands has never shied away from attention. But the 28-year-old Minnesota native who turned pro at 14 has been little more than a novelty act to casual fans, who unleash their inner Joan Rivers and critique her sartorial hits and misses. Then they move along to see the contenders play.
Times — if not her bold fashion statements — are changing.
Right now, Mattek-Sands is playing like the second-best American on the WTA Tour, behind world No. 1 Serena Williams. Mattek-Sands has revived her career after failing to win a main-draw match in her first five tournaments of the year. She made the final of the Malaysian Open, demolished Sloane Stephens (the slumping 20-year-old who is the U.S. No. 2 based on the rankings) at the Family Circle Cup and upset 2012 French Open finalist Sara Errani on her way to the semifinals of the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix as a qualifier two weeks ago. After beginning the year ranked No. 173, Mattek-Sands has climbed to No. 68 and earned direct entry into Roland Garros.
Mattek-Sands’ resurgence is rooted in better health. Shoulder, neck and back injuries hampered her after she reached a career-high No. 30 in 2011, and last fall she skipped the Asian tournaments because of fatigue, a long-standing issue. A blood test revealed more than 20 food allergies, including gluten and dairy. Since modifying her diet to avoid those triggers, Mattek-Sands has felt like a new woman.
“It always seemed like my body was fighting something. I was always sick a lot,” Mattek-Sands told SI.com by phone this week. “Since avoiding everything that I’m allergic to, my sniffles went away. My skin cleared up, my eyes got whiter, I lost some weight. I’m actually eating more now, which is interesting. Before, when you’re eating salad and tomatoes and avocados, you don’t think much of it because they’re healthy foods. But obviously it was disagreeing with me and since I made the adjustments, I can actually eat more foods. That was an issue because I wasn’t getting enough calories after workouts. After two- or three-hour matches, you have to refuel and I could never eat enough.
“I’m just happy I found something that helped me.”
Mattek-Sands’ newfound recovery ability has been a cornerstone of her rise. In the first round of the Family Circle Cup, she outlasted Anastasia Rodionova 6-4, 6-7 (4), 7-6 (3) in three hours and 42 minutes, the longest match on tour this year. A day later, she dominated Stephens 6-2, 6-0. At her next tournament, the Porsche event in Stuttgart, Germany, Mattek-Sands played six singles matches and five doubles matches in seven days.
“For me to be able to play 11 matches in Stuttgart? No chance I would have been able to do that” before the diet, she said. “I think I’ve done that maybe twice in my career, and I had to take a couple of weeks off afterward. This year I’m feeling really healthy and fit, and that’s a huge part of my success.”
Her meals consist of a lot of protein and gluten-free pasta. She carries energy bars and snacks with her at all times, knowing that there might not be an allergy-free option at every corner. Fortunately, though, the tour is a much kinder place these days for selective eaters, thanks to the growing popularity of the gluten-free diet among players.
“If I had this allergy a few years ago, it would have been way tougher,” she said. “Things like having gluten-free pasta on site help.”
Mattek-Sands also credits her turnaround to an improved commitment to the mental side of the game. She now spends more time scouting opponents and herself, watching YouTube highlights of her matches to see which shots are working. Late last season, she began writing in a journal after every practice and match to keep track of what she worked on and where she improved. Those logs have allowed her to remain positive and maintain a proper perspective when things get tough.
“Sometimes you feel like you’ve working on things for years and you think, Why haven’t I got over this yet?” she said. “Writing it down lets you see your own progress because it’s right in front of you.”
She added: “Everyone talks about the game being 90 percent mental now. But does everyone spend 90 percent of their time on the mental side? No, not really. Everyone is on the court working on skills. So I tried to work more on the mental side. My goal at the start of the year was to be the mentally strongest player on tour. I think that’s a goal I can reach.”
Her journal experiment came full circle when she scored the biggest win of her season, beating No. 7 Errani on red clay in Stuttgart.
“I lost to her at New Haven last year and it was one of the first matches that I started journaling,” Mattek-Sands said. “I remember being really upset and the objective was to write down the things I did well in that match. So it was funny that that’s where it started and a few months later I got a win over her.”
Mattek-Sands plans to take a much-needed respite before the French Open (she lost a three-set, first-round match to Ana Ivanovic at this week’s Madrid Open). She pulled out of next week’s Italian Open in singles and will only play doubles with Sania Mirza.
“I feel like I need a little recovery time,” she said. “I’ve been on a pretty good run here without a lot of days off.”