Mattek-Sands: Tennis United proves the ATP and WTA are stronger together

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Tennis Majors caught up with Bethanie Mattek-Sands, in order to dig into the Tennis United adventure and find out how it is helping to bring the fans closer to players like never before.

On April 11, Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Vasek Pospisil hosted the first Tennis United show. In the middle of a global pandemic, the ATP and the WTA came together to both entertain their fans and bring the players together. By picking the ever-colourful personality of Mattek-Sands, the Tours did well. The American has a keen knack for getting her fellow players out of their comfort zone, or even control zone, to make them open up and really share with the audience and each other.

The American, ranked world No 1 in doubles in 2017 and in the top 30 in singles in 2011, is a known personality in the public. She owns five Grand Slam titles in doubles and has added four more to her résumé in mixed doubles. In 2017, Mattek-Sands severely damaged her right knee during Wimbledon, so she’s someone who knows a thing or two about being stuck for a very long time away from the Tour. We caught up with her from her home in Phoenix, Arizona, to dig a bit deeper into the Tennis United adventure and learn what she thinks it shows of her fellow players.

Tennis United, showing the way?

Bethanie, it seems you’ve found a new vocation as host! What do you make of this Tennis United experience so far?

Actually it’s been a lot of fun. It’s crazy to think that so much time has gone by. I’m having a lot of fun with Vasek. I knew him before the show, but not that well. Obviously we would see each other at tournaments and we would chat here and there, but I’ve gotten to know him a little bit better through this show. But it’s been fun connecting with all the players, tournament directors, etc. It’s interesting to see how much we actually all miss each other. We all are used to seeing each other every week.

It’s been fun catching up with everyone. It was a great time to come up with something like Tennis United, uniting both Tours and just uniting everyone. Tennis is an individual sport, but at the same time we’re all in this together and we’re all used to being with each other on the road. So it really is a family. I’m really happy to be doing that Tennis United show.

Why was something like this not created earlier? When one watches, it now seems like an obvious thing to do but it took a long time coming…

It really did it, honestly. I’m surprised it took so long, but at the same time, I’m glad we finally did it. I’m glad both Tours kind of took the opportunity presented and got us all together. You’ve been at the tournaments where it’s the combined events: there’s so much more for fans, it’s more entertaining, it’s fun for the players. I think the Tours are going to be better and stronger together. We’ve seen some of the other players talking about it. Rafa (Nadal) and Roger (Federer) talked a little bit on Twitter and Simona Halep and some of the other women have been talking about a little bit. So I’m glad it’s finally happening. Let’s jump right into this.

We aren’t that different: we all play pretty much in the same cities, the same events, we all train just as hard. So we’re definitely stronger together, and that’s the whole concept of Tennis United. It’s really to bring the tennis community together, to get a one-stop-shop for fans to come and see players interact. So it’s different than when you’re talking to media. It’s been a great idea. And the idea is for it to continue even once the Tour starts again: on-site a little bit more, maybe behind the scenes, with locker room interviews or something like this. Just keep it fun. I think it’s a good inside-look for fans because in tennis you don’t always get that compared with other sports. And tennis is sometimes tough because you only see the matches, and players don’t talk a lot. You don’t see a lot of interactions. So it’s really great to have that sort of getting to know both the men and the women a little bit better.

What’s been the feedback from the players?

I actually have some great feedback from players. In the first interview that we did with Karolina Pliskova, she got on in our zoom call and she was like “Oh my God, this is the first time that I’ve seen another tennis player other than my sister! It’s like, this is kind of nice.” With Vika (Azarenka) and Feliciano (Lopez), we ended up talking for like an hour, like we were just talking about what we thought was happening next, about memories, tournaments that we played. It’s like a good match up for all the players, and I feel like everyone has been super comfortable. That’s the whole idea.

Whenever I’ve done Instagram Lives or whenever I’ve been the interviewer I want to show the best personality out of these different persons. I’m one of the more outgoing ones, but not everyone is like that. But everyone has an interesting story and everyone has interesting hobbies and relationships. For me, it’s always about sort of shining that light on each of the individual players. I feel like we really have a great conversation. Players have really enjoyed it, and it’s been pretty easy to get them to come on in and chat for a little bit. So I hope it’s going to keep continuing and building.

Do you think it’s also helping them to go through these tough times?

I think so. I think this goes back to how individual of a sport tennis is. A lot of us are so used to kind of being in our own bubble. And it’s not easy for us to even be super social at tournaments because we’re there for a job, and we all have different schedules. So when we have a lot of time on our hands and, in this instance, where we don’t even know when we’re going to be competing again, it was actually tough for a lot of players then, and it still is. But we kind of come together knowing that they’re not the only ones in that space. We’re all in this, we all are kind of unsure of what we’re coming back to, and at the same time, we can support each other from afar.

And keeping that lighter side of things, the humorous side of things is good too. There are so many serious things and they are important and it’s not about not talking about it. But I think there’s a balance. If I just listen to the news all day, it would be tough to be happy. There’s a certain amount of facts that you need to face, and then at the same time, how do we stay positive? How can we laugh a little bit? How can we stay lighthearted? And that’s a big premise of the show. That’s actually my personality: I like to find ways to enjoy things. I’ve been through a few tough injuries, and that was one of the best ways for me to come out of that, trying to really find positive aspects, find some silver lining because they’re definitely there.

It’s interesting because I think even though each player is handling this time a little bit differently when you speak to them, you realise why they are really good at what they do. Because they have a certain outlook, a certain way of figuring out a process of tackling obstacles or facing challenges. When you ask them a serious question about staying positive or about staying motivated, they all give a really good answer. It’s one of the reasons why I think everyone should be looking up to these touring pros a lot because they are a really good influence and they have great mentalities and they’re learning more about themselves. So I think it’s fun for me to share their stories and connect the fans with the players and the players with each other. So there are a lot of good things coming out of it.

Do you think that this ATP and WTA merger could really happen?

I think so. There’s just so many working pieces in play. You have the ITF, all four Slams, the WTA and the ATP. Then you have tournaments that are owned by different agencies and different private people. And so it takes a lot for everyone to come together. And that’s why I really hope now is a good time and that we all could sit down to see what is best for everyone, what’s best for tennis, what’s best for the players, what’s best for the sponsors. I’m really a big fan of everyone getting together to find a win-win for everyone because it’s possible. I genuinely think the Tours together are going to be stronger. If you think about entertainment value for fans or sponsors…

There are so many added benefits where both men and women will get a lot out of this, sponsors will get a lot out of it, the TV will get a lot out of it. If tennis is at the forefront of this, that would be amazing as it would be one of the first sports to have the men and women combined. Let’s be at the forefront! We’ve made so many strides in equality so let’s keep it moving. I really see only wins for this happening. So hopefully the powers that be come together and figure it out. But I think it’s definitely possible.

Bethanie Mattek-Sands, co-host of Tennis United

You had this terrible knee injury years ago: do you think it kind of prepared you for what’s happening now?

I feel, if I can say this, a little lucky that I’ve actually gone through something like this before. For me, taking time off and feeling healthy is kind of nice! I can still train, I can do things because the last few times that I’ve had to take time off tennis, I’ve been unable to compete: I was on crutches, waiting for being able to walk again. I learned a lot through those injuries and time off. And that’s why I could see that finding the silver lining, the positive things are so important. It doesn’t stall your comeback, it doesn’t get in the way of your competitiveness. It’s so worth looking at the positive aspects of life.

If I think back to my injuries right now, let’s say my first hip injury in 2008: I remember being so angry and frustrated, I didn’t talk to anyone, I was mad during my rehab. And then I look back and I think what a waste of three months! I ended up coming back, I ended up having amazing results. And so for me, whenever I’m faced with a tough situation, I think about that again, because it was a good reminder that it will pass, that there are other things to look forward to. So it’s definitely helped me for sure. It’s definitely just about finding that motivation. What I’m actually pretty impressed about is how open some of the players are about talking about how uncomfortable they are or the uncertainty they’re dealing with or maybe some anxiety.

It’s so normal. So I’m happy that they’re willing to share their feelings about it because they’re not the only ones that are feeling those things. I think it helps when we all talk about it and find solutions together. Then, in the end, we can see that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, that we are more than tennis players. That was the big thing: finding that we are so much more than just our results, our rankings and that we can do other things in life too. It’s so key. So if players could figure it out now while they’re playing it only helps whenever that time does come for them to retire. So I definitely think players are finding some balance. And I can tell you for sure, though, that when the Tour does start, everyone’s going to be super pumped.

Do you feel that you’re going to play again in 2020?

I think it’s going to be really tough to have the Tours start up again this year. Logistically, it’s going to be challenging for tennis. You have so many countries involved. We have a tournament around the world every single week. You have players coming from different countries. Each country has different quarantine rules. Some countries are open, some aren’t. And you can’t really start if a player is unable to travel somewhere, you have to be fair and open to everyone. So unless we can figure out where we are in a place for like five weeks in a row, like we can have a US swing when we’re all travelling together, maybe we could make it happen. You’ll see some of the exhibitions and team events and I think that’s really good, but as far as a regular Tour tournament, for points and everything, I think it’s going to be tough to have one in 2020.

Tennis United is also showing some solidarity that we didn’t know was there for sure among players?

Look, I’m not going to deny that tennis players can be a little selfish. I’m there with them and it just goes into this individual sport. But at the same time, you see the dedication and you see that side of the players. And then a time like this comes and everyone is open. We’ve all learned so much, we’ve experienced so much at a young age. We have all these advantages from traveling since we were juniors. Something like Tennis United shows everyone’s strength and all these skills that we’ve learned along the way, and how we can help other people.

You’re seeing players get involved with charities, their cities, the local restaurants, and local businesses: you see everyone getting involved. That’s what tennis players are, you just don’t get to see that on TV during tournaments. Tennis United is showing a different side of everyone, is showing how they are off the court, how they are away from competitive tennis. Sometimes players are different when they’re competing, like it’s a different person. It’s a side that I always knew was there because I know the players really well. So I’m just happy that I’m able to help the fans and media and everyone else see this side of the players.

You’re also showcasing so many different types of players…

Definitely. And I think that’s one thing that hasn’t helped tennis, is that so many people, even people who love tennis, only know a couple of players. Don’t get me wrong, we have some amazing superstars, but at the same time, there are so many more players that you can get behind. They have so many great stories, they work hard: one of the big things with Tennis United was to highlight all these different players on our Tours, whether they’re singles players, doubles players, whether they’re English is good or not. We wanted everyone to get to know everyone, to involve the whole Tour.

You’re one busy woman because you were already working on things off the courts no?

A lot of things going on, yes! I’ve been super busy these last 12 weeks. I still have my fashion line, my collaboration with “Lucky in Love”. Obviously it stalled a little bit because the next line that I was going to have come out was going to be for French Open so we had to delay that a little bit, but I still released my Indian Wells and Miami capsules. Now that courts are starting to open up, hopefully, everyone will be excited to dress up again, to feel like tennis players again. I like being colourful. It’s kind of been my look for a lot of time. I really enjoyed it. I really like to be busy and being active. But yes, it is a lot. And it’s funny because I actually don’t have that much caffeine. Imagine if I had. I’d be out of control!

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