Friday, October 20th, 2017

Missing Mattek-Sands, Safarova keeps having fun and winning doubles matches

Saturday, August 12th, 2017 at 3:46 pm , filed under Tennis News by

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The past couple of years in tennis have seen some remarkable individual feats, with both tours seeing players hold all four Grand Slams at once – with Serena Williams doing it on the women’s side, and Novak Djokovic for the men. But this year, it was women’s doubles that produced the greatest sustained run of dominance, before cruel circumstance intervened.

Lucie Safarova and Bethanie Mattek-Sands, the top-ranked doubles tandem in the world, won the 2016 US Open and 2017 Australian and French Opens in succession. They’d only just begun their quest to complete the quadfecta at Wimbledon when, midway through her second-round singles match, Mattek-Sands made a charge to the net, took a fateful split-step, and lost her footing on the slick grass.

A month on from Mattek-Sands’ traumatic knee injury, Safarova is paired up with countrywoman Barbora Strycova at the Rogers Cup in Toronto, where they punched their ticket to the semifinals on Saturday. There’s a good deal of comfort, familiarity, and shared history between the two Czech women, but Safarova understandably still misses the partner who’s been with her at nearly every meaningful tournament over the past few years, and with whom she was in the process of making history.

“Of course I’m missing her a lot, and I’m still very sad (about) what happened,” Safarova told theScore, shortly after she and Strycova won their opening match in Toronto. “Obviously I’m in touch with her. It’s a very unfortunate situation. But I hope she recovers quick and she will come back.”

Safarova’s seen that unfortunate situation from the other side, having missed several months while battling a bacterial infection shortly after she and Mattek-Sands won their first two Slams at the Aussie and French Opens in 2015. One thing she understands, having gone through that trying experience, is that while she and Mattek-Sands are still in constant contact, and still a team in many ways, recovery is ultimately more of a solo effort.

“I think the most important (thing) is to keep the spirit and be positive, and that can make the recovery so much faster,” Safarova said. “Since the first moment it happened I didn’t have any doubt that she would have the will and positivity. Obviously, I try to be there for her as much as I can. But the time, and the recovery process, she has to go through herself.”

Tennis players have to get used to going through things themselves, but doubles offers a sort of antidote to the sport’s notorious loneliness. All week in Toronto, non-traditional doubles players from Karolina Pliskova to Sloane Stephens to Eugenie Bouchard have touted it as a light-hearted counterbalance to the more austere singles game.

That lightheartedness is particularly evident in Safarova. She thrives in doubles in large part because of her rock-solid forehand and nasty lefty hook serve, but also, seemingly, because of the levity she plays with. That was always on full display with Mattek-Sands – in their play, and in their elaborate, choreographed post-match victory dances – and it’s no less plain when she’s on court with Strycova. They are free and loose, smiling or giggling together at changeovers and between almost every point, win or lose.

It’s easy to see the appeal of having someone to bounce emotions off of throughout a match, someone to talk to, and celebrate and commiserate with, as opposed to living inside one’s own head. But playing doubles also requires selflessness. It means ceding an element of control, for better or worse. It means allowing your fate, to a certain extent, to be taken out of your hands. And it means having to account for something a tennis player typically wouldn’t worry about: Chemistry. Which, to hear Safarova tell it, is more art than science.

“I think besides obviously being a good player and having good strategy and things tennis-wise, I think the biggest part is just (to) have a good partnership,” she said. “Have fun with the player you’re playing with. That’s what brings the success in the end.

“I’ve had partners where it just doesn’t click. With Bethanie, we played the first tournament and we won. And it was a Grand Slam! We clicked right away. But you have some players that you would think you would play well with, but there’s something that you don’t complement each other well.”

That hasn’t been an issue for Safarova and Strycova. The two grew up playing together, and have teamed up for international competitions in the past, most memorably toppling Serena and Venus Williams en route to a bronze medal in the 2016 Rio Olympics. She said Strycova was her first choice for a doubles partner in Mattek-Sands’ absence.

“Bara is one of my best friends on tour as well, and we’ve been playing doubles together (since) we were little kids and juniors,” Safarova said. “So obviously it’s a person that I have fun with on court, which is, for me, the most important in doubles.

“I hope we will do well and have fun out there, and win some tournaments.”

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