There was a time when it wasn’t all that out of the ordinary to see a player win back-to-back titles at the Volvo Car Open. Martina Navratilova, Tracy Austin, Steffi Graf and Gabriela Sabatini did it. Conchita Martinez and Serena Williams, too.
Hall of Famer Chris Evert reeled off a record five straight titles between ’74 and ’78, leading The New York Times to wonder: “When will Chris Evert finally lose a tennis match on clay?”
But it has become increasingly difficult to pull off a repeat in recent years. Defending champ Madison Keys will set out in pursuit a second consecutive Volvo Car Open trophy, though she knows she’s got her work cut out for her if she’s to make that happen. There are five Grand Slam champions in the mix in 2021, after all, including World No. 1 Ashleigh Barty (fresh off the Miami Open title), Garbiñe Muguruza, Petra Kvitova, Sloane Stephens and Sofia Kenin. VolvoCarOpen.com takes a closer look at the talent-packed Charleston draw:
How much athleticism can you pack into a 5-foot-5 frame? A whole lot, it turns out, at least when it comes to the top-seeded Barty. A lot has happened for the versatile baseliner/cricketer/golfer since her last appearance at the Volvo Car Open in 2018, when she reached the Round of 16 (l. to Anastasija Sevastova, 6-3, 6-4). In 2019, Barty captured her first major title at Roland Garros and became the first Australian woman in 43 years to reach No. 1.
Despite sitting out much of the 2020 season due to COVID concerns, Barty is in peak form once again. She returns to Charleston fresh off a successful trophy defense in Miami, where she earned her second title of 2021 and her 10th overall. That 50-hour odyssey from Australia to the U.S.? Looks like it hasn’t affected her much after all.
“I’m excited to get on the green clay in Charleston,” said Barty, who has now won 13 of her last 16 matches against Top-10 opponents.
She won’t have much time to rest and recover. The 24-year-old finds herself in a quarter of the draw crowded with the likes of Sevastova, 5th seed Belinda Bencic, 10th seed Elena Rybakina, 13th seed Amanda Anisimova and hometown favorite Shelby Rogers.
Meanwhile, three former Charleston champions — Stephens (2016), 8th seed Keys (2019) and 4th seed Kiki Bertens (2018) — find themselves sandwiched in a lethal second quarter, with the possibility of a rematch of the Keys-Stephens US Open final of 2017 in the second round. And wouldn’t that be something?
Stephens holds a 3-1 head-to-head advantage against her longtime friend, though it was Keys who claimed their most recent encounter on these very same courts in 2019, a 7-6(6), 4-6, 6-2 triumph in the quarterfinals.
A pair of two-time major titlists bookend the third quarter of the 2021 draw — third-seeded wildcard Kvitova and sixth seed Muguruza. But for a Czech-Spanish quarterfinal to indeed materialize, they would first have to navigate potential challenges from a group that includes 18-year-old Monterrey champion Leylah Fernandez, 2014 Volvo Car Open winner Andrea Petkovic, 11th seed Yulia Putintseva and 16th seed Shuai Zhang.
Kvitova and Muguruza last met in the Doha final earlier this year, with Kvitova claiming a 6-2, 6-1 victory, her fifth in six matches against the Spaniard. But Muguruza is having a pretty good year herself: She’s notched a WTA Tour-best 20 match wins on the year, which includes three finals and a WTA 500 title in Dubai.
“I do feel like I’ve played a lot, that’s for sure,” said Muguruza, ranked No. 13. “But it’s positive. Of course, I have a good win-loss record. I think it’s the right way to feel, the right way to work. So I’m happy more than anything, just happy to be able to continue and keep playing tournaments, to not slow down too much.”
It’s hard to believe that Kenin has played just 12 matches in 2021 (7-5), her year slowed by the emergency appendectomy she underwent in Melbourne. Looking to regain her Slam-contenting form, the No. 2 seed will need to get some matches under her belt. Charleston might just be the ideal setting in which to do that. We know she can bring it on clay: The American reached the Roland Garros final last year (l. to Iga Swiatek, 6-4, 6-1). But she’s sure to face challenges in her quadrant, which includes 7th seed Elise Mertens, 12s seed Ons Jabeur, Roland Garros quarterfinalist Martina Trevisan, Camila Giorgi, Aliza Cornet and 17-year-old Coco Gauff, who’ll be making her tournament debut.