LONDON — Bethanie Mattek-Sands first needed to make peace with the incremental and painful process of rehabilitating her right knee after dislocating the kneecap and rupturing the patellar tendon during a match at Wimbledon in 2017.
Then, as the five-time Grand Slam doubles champion healed, she had to get used to the idea of playing on grass again. And then came the emotional moment of simply setting foot back at the site of her gruesome injury. Once all of that was accomplished, it was time to play there again.
The 33-year-old American did just that Thursday, a day shy of exactly one year since she was hurt, pairing up with longtime partner Lucie Safarova to not merely compete at Wimbledon but to win, earning a spot in the second round of women's doubles by eliminating 16th-seeded Alla Kudryavtseva and Lyudmyla Kichenok 7-6 (6), 7-5.
"I had my emotional moments before the tournament started, but it's nothing like when you finally get out there for a match. And to me, it kind of felt like old times, though: Lucie and I were the same on the court. It didn't even feel like 12 months went by," Mattek-Sands said, jutting her right thumb in Safarova's direction. "And it was really special that I got my win on grass with my bestie on the side with me. We had a lot of fun."
Safarova put her right palm to her chest as she said: "I was actually emotional at the beginning."
They had arrived at Wimbledon a year ago bidding for a non-calendar-year Grand Slam, having won the previous three major tournaments in a row. But it was in singles, against Sorana Cirstea of Romania in the second round on Court 17, that Mattek-Sands fell to the grass when her right knee buckled as she moved toward the net in the third set's opening game.
She immediately clutched her knee and began wailing loudly, imploring: "Help me! Help me!"
"I still remember it like it was yesterday. ... I still see her knee," Cirstea said Thursday. "It broke my heart to see her like that last year. I think the world of Bethanie. We saw each other (this week), and I gave her a hug."
Safarova also remembers the moment all too well. She was getting ready to play her singles match that day when she heard on TV about what had happened to her pal and playing partner, then ran to the court and wiped away tears as she saw Mattek-Sands in distress, screaming, until she finally was taken away on a stretcher and brought to a hospital.
Soon came surgery, then all the work it took to come back. That was nothing new to Mattek-Sands, a Rochester, Minn., native who also lived in Wisconsin and now is based in Arizona with her husband, Justin. She thought about retiring from tennis years ago after a series of injuries that included hip surgery less than a week after their 2008 wedding, a torn shoulder in 2011, a broken right big toe in 2012, then another hip operation.
This time, she said, "I couldn't get out of bed by myself. It wasn't just, 'Oh, hey, I can't play tennis for a little while.' I needed to wake Justin up to take me to the bathroom in the middle of the night and then carry me back."
So Thursday's return meant a lot — to Mattek-Sands, to Justin, to Safarova, to Cirstea.
Mattek-Sands would rather not be sent out to Court 17 for another match. She suspects the All England Club won't ask her to play there.
Either way, she went back to the patch of grass last week, before the tournament began, for some closure.
"I had to get those emotions out. I didn't want to avoid that court or I didn't want to avoid some of the emotions or hold them down a little bit, because I think if you do that, they'll end up coming out in a match or in a tight situation. So I wanted to give myself room to feel, whether it was sadness or anger — any of the emotions — and just let them come," Mattek-Sands said. "I'm really happy to be back."