By Nick Zaccardi
PARIS — Three thoughts from American Bethanie Mattek-Sands’ 5-7, 6-3, 6-2 upset of No. 6 Li Na on Thursday in a twice-delayed second-round match at the French Open …
1. Mattek-Sands had been building to this. The colorful veteran walked onto Court 1 listening to Macklemore’s My Oh My and notched the biggest win of her 14-year career by knocking off the 2011 French Open champion. Surprising? Yes. Shocking? No.
“She’s a champion, and I had to play some of my best tennis ever to beat her,” said Mattek-Sands, specifically mentioning the 5-0 lead she ran to in the third set. “I think the momentum has been there. My mentality has been there. My body has been there.”
Mattek-Sands feels revived after finding more than 20 food allergies ranging from papaya to garlic late last year (she keeps a list of foods to avoid, which comes in handy in Paris) and altering her diet as a result. She came into Roland Garros playing better tennis than any American save Serena Williams. She made the final of the Malaysian Open in March, spanked Sloane Stephens 6-2, 6-0 at the Family Circle Cup in Charleston, S.C., in early April and beat 2012 French Open finalist Sara Errani en route to the semifinals of the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix in Stuttgart, Germany, a month ago.
Mattek-Sands was on her game in just about all facets Thursday. She even carried a change of clothes between rain delays (her patented eye black is here, but she hasn’t donned it yet). The only misstep came in her news conference.
“The balls can get a little bit wet and then they get a little heavy,” she said of the conditions. “I’m not here to get — hurt myself because there is wet, heavy balls. … And that’s a terrible — I just realized how that sounded. Wow.”
2. The U.S. women are conquering France. Five reached the third round, the most of any nation and the largest U.S. representation since 2004 (when Venus and Serena Williams and Jennifer Capriati went on to advance to the quarterfinals). Only Venus and Serena made it past the second round from 2007 through 2010.
“We have a lot of talented, young kids,” said Mattek-Sands, 28. “Obviously older kids, too.”
The success has a strong chance of carrying into the second week. In addition to Serena, Stephens has a winnable third-rounder, against No. 92 Marina Erakovic, and Jamie Hampton gets the up-and-down Petra Kvitova. Mattek-Sands will make her second career Grand Slam fourth round if she can take care off Argentine qualifier Paula Ormaechea, who beat Mattek-Sands in their only meeting, last year on clay in Brussels.
There’s also No. 29 Varvara Lepchenko, who draws perhaps the toughest round-of-32 assignment in No. 8 Angelique Kerber.
3. Li Na takes a (proverbial) tumble. Li was noticeably frustrated from the outset of her news conference, when she was asked if she had an illness or injury.
“Why do you ask me that?” she said. “Because I lose the match?”
She went on to say that, no, she wasn’t hurt and, no, she couldn’t use the weather as an excuse. Her collapse to the court and ankle injury in the Australian Open final threw a wrench into what could have been a resurgent season for the 31-year-old.
Li’s clay season, it turned out, peaked with a final in Stuttgart. She then fell to Madison Keys at the Madrid Open and Jelena Jankovic at the Italian Open. Her greatest accomplishment this spring was making the cover of TIME. Li, she of the 21.5 million Weibo followers, actually beat Mattek-Sands 6-4, 6-3 in Stuttgart.
Mattek-Sands started keeping a journal for post-match thoughts last year. She couldn’t remember what she wrote in Germany on April 27, but she was a different player Thursday.
“I’m also a little bit surprised today the way she’s hitting on the court,” Li said.
Li had a chance at Roland Garros to move onto the bumper of the big three of Serena, Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka. The opportunity is not lost — No. 4 Agnieszka Radwanska, No. 5 Errani, No. 7 Kvitova and No. 8 Kerber are not pillars of consistency this year — but she let a big opportunity slide at the site of her greatest triumph.