By Jane Voigt
Daniel Island, S.C. April 2, 2018 — At the point where the Wando and Cooper Rivers diverge lies Daniel Island, home of the Volvo Car Open. Locals call the tournament ‘the tennis’, the Women’s Tennis Association calls it ‘Charleston’, and the all-women group of players assembled here this week call it a welcome relief from the more-than two weeks of big tournaments with their big promotions and media requirements in Indian Wells and Miami.
“I love this tournament,” Madison Keys said, during today’s all-access media hour held at the Daniel Island Country Club. “Obviously I’ve had great success here and the people are amazing. From the tournament director to all the staff that works here to everyone around, it’s truly one of the most fun weeks. It’s a big tournament but it feels super low-key and easily one of my favorite weeks every year. And it’s probably one of the few times I’m really excited to be on clay (laughing).”
Keys, who is seeded number seven this week, has played the event every year since 2013. It marks the beginning of the clay-court season not only for women, but for the men’s tour as well. Keys best result came in 2015 when she lost to Angelique Kerber in the finals.
“It’s [green clay] a little bit faster but you’re still getting used to the movement,” Keys explained. “So I think it’s a really great transition from hard court onto the [European] red clay. I think it’s a great warm-up tournament. You’re also going into another season getting ready to go to bigger tournaments in Madrid, Rome and the French Open. So it’s really nice to have a laid-back women’s only tournament. Everyone’s happy to be here and I think we’re all taking a breath from two big tournaments with lots of sponsor things. Its a calmer week.”
The Volvo Car Open is the biggest all-women’s tournament in the U.S. With 2018 designated as The Year of the Woman, Keys feels right at home.
“I work with Fearlessly Girl, which empowers young women,” Keys said. “We’re more focused on high school girls but middle school girls, as well. It’s something that makes me feel as if I’m doing something to help the world. And it’s helped me find my own voice. It’s been amazing to see that doing that has helped my entire life.”
According to its website Fearlessly Girl focuses on anti-bullying, helping girls be “inspired to be kinder to themselves and each other, putting an end to girl against girl bullying.”
Anastasia Sevastova (right), the tournament’s eighth seed, comes to the Volvo Car Open on a high. Her results have progressively improved.
“I think I was pretty consistent in the last season and I had some tough draws. But, yeah, clay court is I think my most favorite surface,” she said. “I grew up on clay court. Yeah, so, I’m trying to get used to it as fast as possible. It’s [clay-court season] not as long as I’d like it to be but there are sure some nice tournaments.”
European players, such as Sevastova who is a native of Latvia, seem to approach this time of year differently than Americans who were raised on hard courts.
“I try to play more on clay,” Sevastova said, when asked how she transitions to the slippery surface. “I like playing on clay because I grew up on it. Movement on clay is a bit different, but I like structuring the points. The ball bounces high, too. You have a bit more time. I need some matches to get into it, but all the players need that. But I like sliding, which is pretty nice for me. I think the green clay may be a little bit quicker than red.”
Sevastova agrees with Keys on the benefits of an all-woman tournament. “It’s easier to get a [practice] court,” the Latvian said, with a delayed laugh. “It’s a bit relaxed I think being with only girls. But, again, you see the same faces every week (laughing).”
Kvitova, the second seed, is playing the tournament for the first time. Word of mouth about Charleston seemed to influence Kvitova when contemplating a return to the Czech Republic, her home.
“I just wanted to transition to the clay a little quicker. When I lost in Miami I was just [going to] go home, but on the other hand we still have the cold weather in Europe. It’s not great for practice because we practice indoor for the clay, which is not the same,” she said. “So that’s why we came here. I love it here. We’re living by King Street. We’ve been to a few of the restaurants already.”
For Caroline Garcia, the top seed this week, this tournament holds fond memories. It’s one of the first she played when starting on tour back in 2007.
“It was nice to be able to play some WTA qualifying event [then],” Garcia began. “It was a nice tournament, always a lot of people here coming to watch and everyone was nice with [me] it doesn’t matter your ranking. I have some good memories.”
Garcia owns a Yorkshire Terrier, Andy. Some players travel with their pets, but Andy has been at home in France with Garcia’s aunt.
“It was a long flight from France to California,” Caroline explained. “Mom [usually] comes, but it was a long time [in America] and she needed a rest. But she’ll [Andy] be coming in Europe. Sometimes I get some pictures. She’s doing good.”
Garcia said that the transition from hard courts to clay depends on several things.
“Practice is one thing and the matches are another,” she said. “So even if you’ve been practicing for ten days on American clay when I play points it’s okay. But a match is very different. The sliding comes back kind of quickly. But afterward you have to be able to control it, to have good timing with the ball.”
Defending champion Daria Kasatkina has had a whirlwind year since leaving Daniel Island last year. She didn’t perform well at the Australian Open, but was runner-up to Naomi Osaka in Indian Wells. Her ranking, which was higher than 800 on her first appearance here in 2016, has risen to No. 13 this week. She’s seeded number three.
“I started the season not really good,” Kasatkina began. “But I played good in Dubai and since then so I’m coming [in] on a good level. And I will continue to work, of course.”
Kasatkina is not a member of big-babe tennis. At five-foot-eight inches tall her strengths are consistency, a never-die attitude to continue the fight, and her strategic thinking and execution. For a woman of 20, her intuitive qualities on court are remarkable.
“Clay is my favorite. And I won last year here, so I really like it,” she said, with a smile. “Here in Charleston it’s a very good transaction from hard court to clay. Yeah, I’m very excited to come back to the dirt. We don’t have the green clay in Russia at all, but I really like it. Some of my Russian friends ask what it’s [green clay] ike. I tell then that it’s something between a hard court and [red] clay.”
“Maybe a little bit,” she said, when asked if she feels pressure coming in as the defending champion. “But it’s normal. I have to get used to it and how to manage it. It’s part of the game and the experience.”
Even with her tennis career making leaps and bounds, Kasatkina finds time to continue her studies at a sport college in Russia. She wants to be a coach, after all is said and done on tour. But before that she must focus on Charleston.
“It’s good to come on some quiet tournament and relax a little bit with not too much attention,” she said, again smiling.
Daria is also working hard on her California accent, which sounds awfully like the Saturday Night Live players in their skit, The Californians. However she has “awesome” and “how’s it going” down to a science.
Sloane Stephens, who just won her first Miami Open title on Saturday and was seeded number four in this week’s draw, withdrew from Volvo Car Open this afternoon due to exhaustion, the WTA said. She only played here on one other occasion — 2016 — the year she won the title.