By Jane Voigt
Daniel Island, S.C., April 5, 2017 — The top three seeds were ousted today at Volvo Car Open Charleston, all losing to lesser players playing the matches of their lives.
Elena Vesnina (No. 4) couldn’t hold off the serving teen sensation, Fanny Stollar, going down 7-6(6), 7-6(3). The win was Stollar’s career highpoint, to date. She’s currently ranked No. 282. Vesnina just won Indian Wells, a Premier Mandatory tournament. A tournament one notch below a Grand Slam.
“It wasn’t easy after [missing out] on four match points, but I felt mentally really strong,” Stollar said, sounding like a seasoned pro. “I could keep it together no matter what any part of the match did. So, that was good.”
Venus Williams (No. 2) played out of her mind yet couldn’t do enough against Laura Siegemund.
“I tried my best,” Venus said. “This could be the best match she’ll ever play in her life. I basically won the match but still lost. I pretty much hit winners, but she hit winners back at me. I didn’t have any answers. I tried. I don’t know how much more that I could do.”
Williams admitted she made ’some errors’ in the beginning, but “when push came to shove, I feel like I did the right things. But somehow, inexplicably, [I] came up short.”
And early this evening Madison Keys, the number one seed, lost to home-town girl Shelby Rogers, 4-6, 6-1, 6-1. Keys was the 2015 runner-up. This was the first time she’d ever been seeded at number one.
“She was all over my serve,” Keys said. “I feel like I did a pretty good job to get back in the first set. And I feel like I just stopped doing it. Then it kind of all slipped away from me pretty quickly.”
But it was Williams’ loss — 6-4, 6-7(3), 7-5 — that pulled at fans’ heartstrings. She had never lost an opening match here in nine appearances. In her 2004 debut, she won the title. Last week she made a run to the semifinals at The Miami Open. In January she played her sister, Serena, in the Australian Open final.
“She was feeling the ball today,” Venus began. “You know, it’s one thing to play like that on one day. But to be able to keep that level up on a daily basis on matches you’re supposed to win or you don’t have any pressure or you’re not gunning for someone … that’s the biggest challenge, is to win when you’re supposed to.”
The frustration was palpable. Her disappointment valid. Yet her subtle swipe at Siegemund didn’t deter Williams from acknowledging the truth.
“I had a lot of great shots that came back,” she began. “Not a lot of errors. And, you know, she played the best match.”
By reaching the semifinal in Miami, Venus returned to the top ten. She became the third oldest player to reach that height in the WTA Rankings behind Billie Jean King at 39 and Martina Navratilova at 38. Venus will be 37 in June.
Siegemund is currently ranked No. 37. She lost to Venus at the U. S. Open last year in two quick sets. That’s the only time they met. But that was on a hard court. Siegemund prefers soft surfaces, like clay. She’s quick, slides well, and loves her drop shot. She pulled it out of her court bag early in today’s match, taking advantage of her older opponent and, at times, frustrating her.
“When you hit like a really deep, hard shot, it’s very difficult to be ready for a drop shot,” Venus explained. “She was mixing it up well, going for winners but then drop shots. So it’s not often an opponent can continue that sort of level. And, unfortunately, for me today she was able to do that.”
Venus was close to elimination in the second set. She saved one match point, took the tiebreak and sent the match to a final set. No one could’ve have predicted the struggle that pursued.
“Even if you lose a set or so you can always fight your way back into the match,” Siegemund said.” You can always come back on clay. For the confidence certainly helped me against Tsurenko.”
After five consecutive breaks of serve in the third, Venus once again held two match points. But Siegemund held steady, just like Stollar did against Vesnina. Their belief and abandon took them over the finish line. Siegemund hit yet another drop shot. Venus rocketed to the net. And hit a backhand slice just past the baseline tape.
“I didn’t really do anything wrong in the match,” Venus said. “I did the right things. I played aggressively and played great points. I mean I can’t look back and say, wow, I did the wrong things and at those important points and at match point I played great.”
This tournament unlike any other spring tournament provokes struggle. It’s the first soft court event, after weeks of hard court tournaments. The abrupt change is bounce. The slippery aspect and the sliding bring on sets of problems. Muscle groups have to be rejuvenated, like spring flowers. Timing has to change. Patience must adapt.
Therefore the Volvo Car Open requires these women to stretch, the first one to reach their best, or as best as they can reach right now because there’s a whole season of soft court tennis on the horizon, breaks through. Stollar, Siegemund and Rogers broke the clay barrier today.
Stollar had played three matches by the time she met up with Vesnina. That was an advantage. Siegemund played a 3-set doozie against Lesia Tsurenko yesterday. They drop shotted each other until fans went loopy trying to keep track just how many were attempted. And Rogers believed in her hard-hitting tennis against the woman who can hit as hard as the men on the ATP.
But when the struggle attacks the high-end players, the ones that keep the turnstiles turning, then the tournament can lose.
Luckily the Volvo Car Open had an uptick in attendance, during the qualification tournament, according to ESPN’s Kamakshi Tandon. She tweeted, “A record showing @VolvoCarOpen Charleston during qualies — almost 8,000 people the first day, more than 5,000 the second day.”
The tournament signed an 8-year contract with Tennis Channel earlier this year, as well. The thought was more hours of viewing, more people click on it, more attention to the tournament, the biggest women’s-only tournament in the country. Everyone banking on the marriage between the tournament, its title sponsor Volvo Cars, and Tennis Channel, better hold their breath. With the Masters from Augusta, on this week and baseball season revving up, viewers may not be so willing to leave the dial on tennis.