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A long recovery for Bethanie Mattek-Sands

Harrison Hill/New York Times

Injured tennis player Bethanie Mattek-Sands positions herself before her rehab session at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York.

By Cindy Shmerler New York Times News Service 

Bethanie Mattek-Sands still cannot bring herself to watch video replay of the moment that led to the scream heard ‘round the world.

In the first game of the third set of her second-round match against Sorana Cirstea at Wimbledon two weeks ago, Mattek-Sands was approaching the net when her right knee buckled, sending her sprawling on the grass court and hollering for help.

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“I lived it,” Mattek-Sands said Wednesday. “I don’t need to see it.”

One glance at the kneecap that had ruptured and dislocated so badly that it was pushed up into her quadriceps was enough. Mattek-Sands’s expletive-laden pleas to Cirstea were heard not only by everyone courtside but around the world via live television feeds. Her husband, Justin Sands, ran to her side and covered the damaged limb with a towel.

“I just remember going up to the net and hearing a loud pop,” Mattek-Sands, 32, said. “I felt like my leg couldn’t support me. Then I looked at it and it didn’t even make sense. I thought I could adjust it and put it back in place, but I couldn’t. That’s when I screamed, ‘Help me.'”

The scene and the injury shook Wimbledon. So beloved is Mattek-Sands by her fellow players that she has received hundreds of get-well messages from members of the WTA and ATP tours.

Three days after being carried off the court on a stretcher to a waiting ambulance, Mattek-Sands and her husband were en route to New York, and two days after that, she had surgery to repair a complete patellar tendon rupture.

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Despite the ordeal, her disposition was as sunny as the colorful outfit she wore to a physical therapy session Wednesday.

At noon, Mattek-Sands, trailed by her husband, appeared in the doorway of the sports rehabilitation facility at the Hospital for Special Surgery on New York’s upper East Side. Her punctuality was startling, given that her doubles partner, Lucie Safarova, said last year that the only thing that Mattek-Sands is bad at is being on time.

Mattek-Sands, on crutches, wore a cumbersome black brace supporting her right leg and, on her left, a bright pink compression sock — the kind she wears during matches as both a fashion statement and to aid in circulation. She sported bright, flower-covered track shorts, black patent-leather sneakers and round reflector sunglasses.

Waiting for her was Ioonna Felix, a physical therapist with whom Mattek-Sands also worked after hip surgery in 2014. The task at hand was to reduce edema, or swelling, in the kneecap before attempting, ever so slowly and carefully, to begin increasing range of motion.

Mattek-Sands proclaimed her pain level as between four and seven out of 10. Still, she weaned herself off pain medication after just two days, opting instead for ice packs and, on occasion, a shot of tequila.

“With this kind of surgery, you really have to respect the healing process,” Felix said. “At this point, there are a lot of restrictions.”

Mattek-Sands and her husband made the small, nondescript room feel like a comedy club. Sands, a former college football player, sports a giant “Bethanie” tattoo across his forearm as well as the dates of four of her Grand Slam doubles and mixed doubles championships (he has not had time to add last year’s US Open and this year’s Australian and French titles, all won with Safarova).

He used his phone to record his wife’s every goofy word and movement to share on Instagram. Together, they laughed loud and long.

They have started an Instagram story series called InBedwithBethanie, a nod to the visitors who have stopped by the apartment they are staying in during her rehab. The apartment is littered with floral arrangements and food deliveries, including homemade pies by Sands’s parents and tacos sent by CoCo Vandeweghe. Adam Altschuler, Mattek-Sands’s longtime coach, flew in from Budapest to be with them, and Safarova and Kathy Rinaldi, the American Fed Cup captain, check in daily.

The couple plans to be in New York for another week, then continue therapy at the Conway Clinic in Pennsylvania before finally returning to their Arizona home and to Ruger, their 140-pound Boerboel. Mattek-Sands’s greatest fear is that the playful dog may try to put his heavy head on her healing leg.

During the therapy session, Dr. David Altchek, who performed Mattek-Sands’s surgery, arrived to check on his patient. He was pleased by the minimal swelling he saw, and encouraged Felix to push the bending exercise, gently folding the knee from 20 degrees to nearly 35. Everyone was thrilled, most of all Mattek-Sands, who said her greatest frustration was needing help to put on her socks and sneakers.

“This is not a typical injury,” said Altchek, who has operated on countless professional athletes. “We see this in the NFL and the NBA, but I have never operated on a professional tennis player for a ruptured patellar tendon because their footwork and balance are so good. Bethanie’s just too strong for her body. But this is definitely not a career-ender for her.”

Altchek said that he saw no reason Mattek-Sands could not make a full recovery but that it would not be a quick one. Injuries like hers require a minimum of six months off court, he said, and three to six more before she will probably be able to rejoin the tour.) Mattek-Sands is the No. 1-ranked doubles player (and No. 90 in singles), and she and Safarova were the top-seeded pairing at Wimbledon. Had they won the title, they would have been the reigning champions at all four Grand Slam tournaments.

Mattek-Sands was also in line to lead the United States against Belarus in its first Fed Cup final since 2010. She has not yet decided whether she will travel to Minsk in November to cheer on the team, but she has plans to be in New York for the US Open next month, possibly to do some television commentary.

Mattek-Sands has not had the time or wherewithal to dwell on the what-could-have-beens. She has been injured too many times in her 18-year career.

“Honestly, I’m taking it one day at a time,” said Mattek-Sands, who said she wants to start a family, but not until she is sure her playing days are over. “With my other injuries, I’ve rushed back because of FOMO, my fear of missing out. I’m going to enjoy this time off and make a list of the things I’ve always wanted to do but haven’t had the chance. The injury will heal itself. Stressing about it won’t make it go any faster.”