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PHOENIX’S BETHANIE MATTEK-SANDS ON VERGE OF FIRST OLYMPICS

Bethanie Mattek-Sands, a nine-year Phoenix resident, is virtually assured of a U.S. tennis berth at the Rio Olympics by virtue of her No. 9 world doubles ranking at the deadline for direct Olympic acceptance. Video: Jeff Metcalfe/azcentral sports Wochit

31-year-old is ranked No. 9 in the world in doubles

The U.S. Tennis Association won’t make it official until after July 4, but Bethanie Mattek-Sands already is among the American tennis nominees for the Rio Olympics.

Because of her No. 9 world ranking in women’s doubles through a June 6 deadline for direct Olympic acceptance, Mattek-Sands, who has lived in metro Phoenix for nine years, is virtually assured of playing in her first Olympics at age 31. She was in Olympic contention in 2008 and 2012 only for injuries and competition to intervene. Now two years after a second hip surgery, she is perhaps playing the best tennis of her career.

“I’m just in a better place right now,” Mattek-Sands said during a training stop at home before leaving for Wimbledon. “I think I’ve really evolved as a player and an athlete and honed in on what the best plans are for me” in training, nutrition and recovery. “It’s a accumulation of everything. It’s really been a progression. I feel the best I’ve ever felt.”

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Mattek-Sands will be one of the few  tennis Olympian with Arizona ties since the sport rejoined the Olympic program in 1988. Sargis Sargsian, who played at Arizona State in 1994-95, represented Armenia at the 1996, 2000 and 2004 Olympics. Victoria Azarenka, who trained in Scottsdale when she was a teen, won two medals at the 2012 Olympics,

For Mattek-Sands, who embraces the state even during the summer heat, representing it and the U.S. at an Olympics trumps even her 2015 Grand Slam doubles titles at the Australian and French opens.

“There’s so many things about Phoenix that I love coming home to,” Mattek-Sands said. “I’ve traveled around the world, been a lot of places and I don’t see myself moving anywhere else. I feel like I’m in workout clothes all day anyway so I don’t mind sweating. The nights here in the summer are amazing to me. I’ve bragged to all my friends on the tour about coming and visiting me. I feel like I fit in Phoenix. I love it here.”

Mattek-Sands has won seven WTA double titles since 2015, five with Lucie Safarova of the Czech Republic, also her partner for Wimbledon, where play begins Monday. An abdominal strain followed by bacterial infection sidelined Safarova from the 2015 U.S. Open through early 2016 so Mattek-Sands teamed with Coco Vandeweghe to win at Indian Wells, Calif., in March, perhaps a prelude to Rio.

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“They ask me who I want to play with,” said Mattek-Sands, also 2-0 with Vandeweghe in Federation Cup matches. “It’s hard to choose sometimes, but Coco and I have had the best record and experience playing together and chemistry. I think that’s going to be the choice, but nothing is set in stone so I’ll wait and see.”

It’s also likely that Mattek-Sands will play in Olympic mixed doubles with Mike Bryan (her 2015 French Open title partner) or Bob Bryan; the other Bryan twin probably teaming with Serena Williams. The Williams sisters, both ranked in the singles top 10, likely will play singles and doubles in Rio with Venus going to her fifth Olympics and Serena to her fourth.

“Everyone I’ve talked to that has played the Olympics said it’s really one of those memorable moments of their career so I’m really looking forward to it,” Mattek-Sands said. “I think it’s more special because it’s not every year. Even less people get the chance to go. What really brings it home is the emotional side of playing for your country.”

Growing up in Neenah, Wis., Mattek-Sands remembers watching Olympic gymnastics including Kerri Strug in 1996.

“Gymnastics was actually the first sport I started with,” she said. “It’s probably better I didn’t get involved because I’m not very flexible. It’s really inspiring and with the coverage now you get a chance to see all these athletes and how they’ve managed to get to the top level in sports I’ve never even tried.”

With major U.S. Olympic Trials still to come in gymnastics, swimming and track, the number of athletes, coaches and staff with Arizona ties in Rio is expected to surpass 50, covering at least 12 sports.

Eighteen-time swim gold medalist Michael Phelps, who trains at Arizona State, is looking to qualify for his fifth Olympics. Phoenix Mercury guard Diana Taurasi and U.S. men’s volleyball player Reid Priddy, who went to Mountain Pointe High School, will be playing in their fourth.

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