Sunday, April 11, 2021

Kudermetova leaves Charleston with new belief, a big trophy, a check--and a Volvo

Photo courtesy of Volvo Car Open/Chris Smith

Veronika Kudermetova said that when she arrived in Charleston, she didn't believe that she could win the title because she didn't have good preparation before Miami, and "...I had, I think, a lot of troubles in my head." But the 23-year-old Russian wound up "pulling a Swiatek" and winning the tournament without dropping a set. Kudermetova's Volvo Car Open victory represents her first WTA title, and starting with a 500-level event is an impressive way to make the tennis world take notice.

In today's final, Kudermetova, seeded 15th, defeated Montenegro's Danka Kovinic 6-4, 6-2. Kovinic had done a lot of heavy lifting at the tournament, upsetting the third, eleventh and twelfth seeds. But--while, on paper--Kudermetova's draw wasn't as difficult as Kovinic's--she had her work cut out for her in both the quarterfinals and the semifinals, in which she defeated 2016 champion Sloane Stephens and a red-hot Paula Badosa, respectively. 

Kudermetova has a very good serve (as of now, she's the WTA ace queen, with 130 aces hit in 2021), but it failed her several times throughout the tournament, so she repeatedly used her second serve to get out of trouble. She also did some excellent defending, and was a rather calm and cool presence on court at almost all times.

Despite her doubts when she began her Charleston campaign, the new champion said that once she started to play matches, she just focused on her work, and "...match by match, I started to play really well." Several times during the week, Kudermetova talked about her focus on "the work," explaining that the most important thing that she does is practice.

Photo courtesy of Volvo Car Open/Christ Smith

Kudermetova said that--of all her experiences on the courts in Charleston--the one that she will take with her is "I think most important, the belief in myself, trust in myself." Now that she has that belief, and now that she has a big title (and a new Volvo)!, "...the pressure come off from the shoulder." Indeed.

As for Kovinic, she had a splendid run this week, knocking out the likes of young star Leylah Fernandez, Petra Kvitova, Yulia Putintseva, and Ons Jabeur. Of the final, Kovinic said, “She was more constant from the baseline than I was today.”

Kovinic, like Kudermetova, is taking away more than her runner-up dish: “I stayed composed and calm during most of the match. I think that is the one thing I discovered about myself—that I can be really calm in some crucial moments, and just to make good decision when it’s very important."

Photo courtesy of Volvo Car Open/Chris Smith

The unseeded Kovinic also said: “…of course I feel a little bit sad because I didn’t lift that trophy, but that is only if I’m looking only at this day, but if I’m looking overall at this week and the process before this tournament, I’m really happy…”

Photo courtesy of Volvo Car Open/Chris Smith

The day began with a third title (and two Volvos) for the top seeds in doubles, Nicole Melichar and Demi Schuurs. In the final, they defeated Marie Bouzkova and Lucie Hradecka 6-2, 6-4. 

"To transition from the hard to the clay and win right away the first week, I think that’s incredible….” Melichar said. This is the U.S. player's tenth title, and she has also finally cracked the top 10, a convergence that she said was possibly "meant to be."

Saturday, April 10, 2021

Danka or Veronika--who will rule on green clay?

All photos courtesy of Volvo Car Open/Chris Smith
Who would have thought that the final four women in the 2021 Volvo Car Open would be players who have never won a title? I think it's quite interesting, and it's also a kind of extended statement on the history of the Charleston tournament, which is known as a star-maker event. We need only go back to 2017 to note the last time that this phenomenon occurred: Dasha Kasatkina won the event, and it was her first title. Kasatkina would go on to win three more titles, and even to spend some time in the top 10. (The finalist that year, Alona Ostapenko, traveled to Europe after leaving Charleston, and--while she was there--won the French Open.)

Today's semifinal matches featured two seeded players and two unseeded players. In the first match, Danka Kovinic (the tennis face of Tunisia) faced off against 12th seed Ons Jabeur (the tennis face of Montenegro). Jabeur, who has an impressive variety of shots from which to choose, sometimes didn't appear quite prepared for the steadiness of Kovinic's game. Kovinic out-served Jabeur in both first and second serves, and she broke her four times. Her 6-3, 6-2 victory puts her into the final against 15th seed Veronika Kudermetova of Russia.

After the match, Kovinic told the press:  “I was feeling very calm today, but, to be honest, I didn’t expect this result in two sets, like 6-3, 6-2. I was feeling a bit tired, but somehow, I didn’t show that on the court.

“I didn’t even think about winning or even playing finals….to be honest, I didn’t feel a hundred percent confident in my first round, and even in my second round again Leylah. And then, match by match, my game improved, and my confidence raised a little, and then everything come together, and I’m in the final right now!”

In the second semifinal, Paula Badosa, who has played some really thrilling tennis all week, was stopped by Kudermetova, who had an answer for just about everything Badosa threw at her. Badosa made fewer unforced errors (22 to 26) than Kudermetova, but Kudermetova hit twice as many winners as Badosa, and she broke Badosa four times. 

The Spaniard raised her level in the second set, and there was a very tense game at 2-all, in which Badosa held two break points. After twelve minutes and half a dozen deuces, Kudermetova held, and that would turn out to be the last stop on the speeding Kudermetova train, bound for the final. The 15th seed defeated Badosa 6-3, 6-3. She still has not dropped a set.

“I have a lot of mistakes with my first serve and I played just with the second serve," Kudermetova said after the match, "but I’m really happy that I can find the way that I can win with the second serve against Paula because she’s aggressive player….”

Kudermetova also said that she felt that, at the Volvo Car Open, she has played smarter than she has in the past.

Here are the players' paths to the final:

Danka Kovinic
round 1—def. Gabriela Talaba
round 2—def. Leylah Fernandez
round 3—def. Petra Kvitova (3)
quarterfinals—def. Yulia Putintseva (11)
semifinals—def. Ons Jabeur (12)

Veronika Kudermetova (15)
round 1—def. Desirae Krawczyk (Q)
round 2—def. Emma Navarro (WC)
round 3—def. Karumi Nara
quarterfinals—def. Sloane Stephens
semifinals—def. Paula Badosa

In doubles play, top seeds Nicole Melichar and Demi Schuurs defeated Gaby Dabrowski and Asia Muhammad, 7-5, 6-1, in the semifinals. In the final, they will face Maria Bouzkova and Lucie Hradecka, who upset fourth seeds Alexa Guarachi and Desirae Krawczyk, 6-3, 0-6, 1-0.

And finally, this gem from Danka Kovinic:

Question: “What are Montenegins known for?”
Kovinic: “We’re known to be lazy.”

Friday, April 9, 2021

Badosa and Kovinic--women on a mission

Paula Badosa (photo courtesy of Volvo Car Open/Chris Smith)

Yesterday, Paula Badosa told the press at the Volvo Car Open that she wanted to play Ash Barty because she wanted to know what it feels like to play against the number 1 player in the world. This evening, Badosa got her wish, and she made the most of it. The Spanish player served up a storm and kept her cool throughout the quarterfinal match, upsetting Barty 6-4, 6-3. The Spanish player got her first top 20 win earlier in the week when she upset fifth seed Belinda Bencic in a thriller of a match. She then defeated Caty McNally, before taking Barty out of the event.

Badosa said that she went into the match with a game plan, but had to change it a bit. " At the beginning, I didn’t know what was happening. I like rhythm, and she wasn’t giving me any rhythm.” Badosa said she wasn't prepared for Barty's slices, volleys and very fast forehand. “I think," she said, "when you play a player like that, the energy on court is different.”

Ons Jabeur (photo courtesy of Volvo Car Open/Chris Smith)

Badosa isn't the only player who has chosen the green clay of Charleston to make a big statement. Danka Kovinic upset 11th seed Yulia Putintseva in three sets (6-7, 7-5, 6-1) today to advance to the semifinals. Kovinic had already defeated the up-and-coming Canadian player, Leylah Fernandez, and--in the round of 16--she upset third seed Petra Kvitova. 

Talking about today's match against Putintseva, the Montenegrin said that “Sometimes I was also surprised by myself, by how composed I was....I kept thinking, if I show more emotions, she’s gonna get more pumped….

It was tough at the beginning, just to switch from yesterday’s match—it was really hitting good from the baseline, and today it was completely different—a lot of topspin, a lot of running. I knew, actually, how she’s gonna play, and I think I was well prepared.”

Kovinic talked about her struggles on the tour. When she had her highest ranking, she stopped working with her coach of eleven years, and everything went wrong. “Every week, I was losing….Sometimes you just doubt yourself….that was the first time in my career that I felt like, nothing is going well, physically and emotionally.”

It took about a year and half for her to get back on track, Kovinc said. Asked whether there was some particular advice that helped her, she replied: "I wanted to do it my way, and I think maybe it was longer, but at the end, I”m happy I did it this way because I get to know myself better, you know, and to know what I want to do in my tennis career, in life, what is good for me, what is not, and then I think, it just takes time.”

Ons Jabeur (photo courtesy of Volvo Car Open/Chris Smith)
Also advancing today was 12th seed Ons Jabeur, who defeated 14th seed Coco Gauff 6-3, 6-3. It was Jabeur's first victory over Gauff, which prompted her to say that "Maybe this year is a revenge year for me.” Jabeur said that her serve hasn't really been working for her the way she wants it to, so "Maybe the miracle happens tomorrow.”

We often hear commentators say that the problem with having a wide array of shots from which to choose is that a player with this advantage sometimes doesn't know which shot to choose. Jabeur said exactly that during her press conference--that knowing how to hit so many different shots is an advantage, but sometimes it isn't.

It should be noted that Gauff injured her hip during the match, so she and partner Caty McNally have withdrawn from doubles competition.

Veronika Kudermetova (photo courtesy of Volvo Car Open/Chris Smith)
In the final match of the day, Veronika Kudermetova defeated 2016 champion Sloane Stephens 6-3, 6-4. Kudermetova, seeded 15th, broke Stephens four times. The Russian player said that she felt confident tonight. “When I start to win more matches, I feel confident. But I think first it comes from the practice. In the practice, you do the same thing—you try to do like, every day, the same, same, and I think—for me—it’s very important when I do the same thing every day in the practice, and I start to feel confident.”

Here is the semifinal draw:

Danka Kovinic vs. Ons Jabeur (12)
Paula Badosa vs. Veronika Kudermetova (15)

Thursday, April 8, 2021

Quarterfinals set in Charleston

Though we should always know to expect anything from a tennis match (and after last night, we should really know), I imagine that most of us were not prepared to see Garbine Muguruza retire in the second set of her round of 16 match this morning. The sixth seed, who has looked so good during this tournament, sustained a left leg injury. She had the trainer treat her, and, she said, "I definitely wanted to give it a chance…but it just got worse..." Muguruza also said that the transition from hard courts to clay courts was problematic for her.

Muguruza's retirement means that her opponent, Yulia Putintseva--who lost the first round 0-6 (it was 2-all in the second when Muguruza retired)--has advanced to the quarterfinals. The 11th seed told Tennis Channel, "I don't believe, at the moment, that I deserve to go through, because she was playing really good tennis." But go through she did, and she plays the unseeded Danka Kovinic in the quarterfinals.

Danka Kovinic (photo courtesy of Volvo Car Open/Chris Smith)
Today was hotter and more humid than any other day so far, and sure enough, we saw the demise of third seed Petra Kvitova. To be fair, her opponent, Danka Kovinic played quite well, defeating Kvitova 6-4, 6-1. But one can't help but think that the intense humidity was also Kvitova's undoing, as it has been so many times in the past.

Coco Gauff (photo courtesy of Volvo Car Open/Chris Smith)

2016 champion Sloane Stephens, continuing her excellent form, defeated Ajla Tomlhanovic in straight sets, 15th seed Veronika Kudermetova defeated Karumi Nara, and 12th seed Ons Jabeur ended Alize Cornet's run in an entertaining (it goes without saying) three-set match. And 14th seed Coco Gauff defeated countrywoman Lauren Davis 6-2, 7-6; there were seven breaks of serve.

Paula Badosa (photo courtesy of Volvo Car Open/Chris Smith)
Paula Badosa, who won that thriller contest against Belinda Bencic, won again today, this time defeating Caty McNally. Looking back on the Bencic match--which she served for twice, and won on her fifth match point--Badosa said:

“I recently learned to fight like that….My problem was that I wasn’t accepting the bad moments….But since some months ago, last year, I made a big change mentally, I started to work a lot on that, to fight, like every  point, no matter what.”

The Spanish player said that she didn't like green clay when she played in ITF tournaments, but that now, she likes playing on them. 

Recalling the 2020 French Open, she she upset both a French Open finalist and a French Open champion, Badosa said that the occasion was a turning point for her

“Totally, totally. Because I was having rough times. I had good matches, but not at that level because I never was believing on myself, but that two matches, and doing it in a Grand Slam, at Roland Garros, was very special to me. It helped me with self-confidence, and believing on myself, and to work the pre-season very hard, and believing that this season was going to be better than the last one.”

Badosa will play either home favorite Shelby Rogers or world number 1 Ash Barty in the next round. She was very complimentary of Rogers' game, and then added, "Ash Barty--I don't have words to describe that."

She then added: "Okay, I’m gonna be honest, I would like to play Ash Barty because I never played against a world number 1, and I would like to see what it is to play a world number 1."

In tonight's match, world number 1 Ash Barty had to go three sets to defeat Shelby Rogers. Barty had a lot of trouble with her serve (though she did hit nine aces), and it took her two hours and 23 minutes to overcome Rogers. 

After the match, Barty said that it was difficult for her to play at night on the Charleston court. "It’s quite dry and the ball travels through the air a little bit longer than it did in Miami….I felt like I wasn’t quite seeing the ball and angling the ball as well as I have been, but that’s all part and parcel of adjusting to a new surface and to different conditions.”

Here is the quarterfinal singles draw:

Ash Barty (1) vs. Paula Badosa
Veronika Kudermetova (15) vs. Sloane Stephens
Yulia Putintseva (11) vs. Danka Kovinic
Ons Jabeur (12) vs. Coco Gauff (14)

Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Paula Badosa gets her first top 20 win and shows impressive mental strength

Paula Badosa (photo courtesy of Volvo Car Open/Chris Smith)

She served for the match twice, lost a second set tiebreak, and then immediately went up 3-0 in the third set. Who does that? Paula Badosa does that, or at least she did it today in her second round match against fifth seed Belinda Bencic. 

It obviously wasn't a smooth ride. Badosa needed five match points to seal the victory, and she also had to contend with hitting eleven double faults (I should add, though, that she hit ten aces). And the second set featured a revived Bencic, who looked like she was going to wipe out the Spanish player's chances.

But Badosa continued her aggressive game plan, and--with a 6-2, 6-7, 6-1 victory--she marked her first-ever win against a top twenty player. 

A side note: My plan was to ask for a press conference with Badosa, but I suddenly found myself in the middle of a household crisis (I was frantically drying my hair in order to get on Zoom in time for Badosa's press conference, and then workmen unexpectedly showed up at my door, so I didn't have a chance to request her. ) I just assumed that someone else had requested her for a press conference, but then it became evident that no one had, which really surprised me because that was a huge win.

Next for Badosa is Caty McNally, who defeated Anastasija Sevastova in their second round match.

Lauren Davis (photo courtesy of Volvo Car Open/Chris Smith

Second seed Sofia Kenin was upset in the second round by Lauren Davis, who defeated her 4-6, 6-3, 6-4. The match took interesting turn in the third set, with Davis up 3-0, when Kenin took a medical time-out, apparently for a groin injury. And while it took Davis a little while to get her momentum back, she eventually found it, and won the match on her second match point.

Talking about her strategy, Davis said:

“I went in with a certain game plan and found that it wasn’t working so much, and I was a bit uncomfortable, so I just really dug deep and really started thinking about how to beat her, and I found that, like, heavy deep balls were not her favorite and being on clay, the ball bounces high, and pushing girls back is very effective, so I did that. And then also, I changed my serve a bit, like I made more first serves, put more height on the ball, more topspin….”

Alize Cornet (photo courtesy of Volvo Car Open/Chris Smith)

I consider Alize Cornet the biggest under-achiever on the tour. On those occasions when she meets her potential, it's such a pleasure to watch her. Today was one one of those days when she met it, upsetting 7th seed Elise Mertens. Cornet was splendid in her gutsy 7-5, 6-3 victory. Next for her is 12th seed Ons Jabeur.

Rising Canadian star Leylah Fernandez was defeated by Danka Kovinic, and Emma Navarro, who won her first WTA main draw match yesterday, was defeated by 15th seed Veronika Kudermetova. Kurumi Nara, 12th seed Ons Jabeur, and top seed Ash Barty all won their matches today, as did Ajla Tomljanovic, who upset 17th seed Marie Bouzkova. 14th seed Coco Gauff defeated Liudmila Samsanova, and 2016 champion Sloane Stephens defeated eighth seed and defending champion Madison Keys. Stephens and Keys were the only two remaining former champions, after both 2014 champion Andrea Petkovic and 2018 champion Kiki Bertens withdrew from the event.

In the final match of the evening, we had a little of everything--18 breaks of serve, muttering, an injury, and a racket abuse warning, followed by a point penalty for leaving the court for an unauthorized destination. In just over half an hour, 13th seed Amanda Anisimova was up 6-1, 4-1 over Shelby Rogers. Anisimova, however, sustained a groin injury and have to have treatment. When she returned to the court, chaos reigned for the remainder of the match.

For one thing, it was quite clear that Anisimova was in pain; her movement was hampered, and she frequently grabbed her leg. She was also totally fed up, which led to the racket abuse incident. The unauthorized journey off of the court remains a mystery. All I know is that she reported that she was going to the restroom but went somewhere else. 

Despite being in physical and emotional pain, Anisimova was two points away from winning the match. Rogers broke, however, and went on to win the second set 7-5. The third set was close, though Anisimova was clearly in a meltdown. Rogers won the very unusual match, 1-6, 7-5, 6-4. Afterwards, in her press conference, she was quite candid (which we would expect of Shelby Rogers), and was able to laugh--quite a bit--at everything that had happened.

“I don’t ask questions sometimes," she said, "I was just trying to fight every single point, keep getting balls back as best I could, try to problem-solve my way through her array of winners that she was hitting….

Asked about the dramatic turnaround that she made, Rogers replied: “That was quite the turnaround, quite the predicament, I still haven’t really processed it all….I’m just so happy to move on and get away from that.

“That was about the most overwhelmed I’ve been in a long time, at the beginning of the match, just feeling like I couldn’t do anything right. She was not missing a ball, I wasn’t making a ball. It was just this perfect storm of really tough times. That’s the beautiful thing about tennis—you can always come back, right?"

Rogers' reward for surviving tonight's bizarre match? She plays world number 1 Ash Barty. Asked about that, Rogers said, “She’s so solid, it’s pretty tough to find a hole in her game.”

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Remembering my early years in Charleston

Patty Schnyder (photo by Diane Elayne Dees)

Watching the Volvo Car Open on television feels really weird, but there was a time when I always watched it on television. Finally, in 2005, I decided to attend part of it. I booked a room in Summerville and arrived in time to watch the round of 16.

The first match I saw couldn't have pleased me more because it featured Patty Schnyder, a big favorite of mine. She played Klara Koukalova, and it was so cold, the players kept their warmup clothes on for the entire match. Schnyder won. Later in the morning, Justine Henin played Lindsay Davenport, and Davenport was winning when she sustained an injury. I don't recall whether she retired (I think she did), or whether she was just hampered for the remainder of the match. Henin would go on to win the tournament.

My place in Summerville was quite nice, and the resident cat stayed in my room at night. There was also a resident parrot who talked to the cat. My host told me a hilarious story about the parrot which I cannot repeat on this blog, but which I've told many times. 

I liked everything about what was then the Family Circle Cup--the green clay, the proximity to the players, the beautiful Althea Gibson Club Court, the Grand Lawn.

The next year, my then-husband accompanied me, and this time, we attended the entire event. Summerville was a bit dull and far away, so we stayed in Mount Pleasant, and would continue to do so for many years.  

I forget what year it was, but on one occasion, the night doubles match was canceled because of a walkover. I don't care for exhibition matches, as a rule, but I'll never forget the one that was thrown together for us that night. Gisela Dulko and Flavia Pennetta played Liezel Huber and Katerina Srebotnik. Lynn Welch was the chair umpire. Dulko and Pennetta's antics were so hilarious that I was in tears half the time; they could have put their show on the road. I wanted a video of the match, but none was available.

One year, Schnyder was playing on one of the outer courts, and was quite irritated about her performance. Her coach was nowhere to be found, but she spotted me in the stands near the court and began yelling at me. This went on for the remainder of the match.

Back in those days, it would get very hot in the daytime, but then extremely cold at night, and if you didn't have a blanket, you were in trouble. And then, of course, there were the storms. In 2007, we were walking on King Street on the weekend before main draw play began, and--having experienced many hurricanes--I saw the color of the sky and smelled the flint-like odor I know only too well. I insisted that we drive to the hotel immediately.

Sure enough, a tornado hit Charleston, and very strong winds rocked the stadium, blowing down all sorts of things, but not the banner with Justine Henin's photo on it. No storm would dare mess with Henin. The final that year was wild, with strong winds blowing all over the court and debris flying. Jelena Jankovic handled the wind like a boss, and won the title, defeating Dinara Safina (who yelled at the wind a lot).

I also met my friend Daniel during those early years (though we "knew" each other from my blog), and he went on to take photos for Women Who Serve.

Photo by Diane Elayne Dees

It's hard to explain the Charleston tournament to someone who has never attended it. The grounds are beautiful, the vibe is very laid back, and the event is run with great efficiency. The crowd is very savvy and the people who attend place a premium on having a sense of humor. When Vera Zvonareva performed what was the greatest racket break of all time, the crowd--instead of booing her--cheered her on. (A few years ago, when Yulia Putintseva began yelling on the court the way she sometimes does, the crowd yelled with her.)

It will be so nice, next year, to not have to watch the Volvo Car Open on television, but in the meantime, I'm grateful to be able to watch it any way I can.

Kvitova and Muguruza win their first-ever Charleston matches

Petra Kvitova (photo courtesy of Volvo Car Open/Chris Smith)

Wild card and third seed Petra Kvitova, whose only other visit to Charleston occurred in 2018, won her first Volvo Car Open match today, defeating Storm Sanders 7-6, 6-2. Also winning her first Volvo Car Open match was Garbine Muguruza, whose only other visit to Charleston took place in 2013. Muguruza, the sixth seed, defeated Magdalena Frech 6-1, 6-3. Both players had byes in the first round, and have now advanced to the round of 16.

Garbine Muguruza (photo courtesy of Volvo Car Open/Chris Smith)

Both WTA stars lost in their opening rounds during their debuts in Charleston. Kvitova was upset by Kristyna Pliskova, and Muguruza was upset by qualifier Jessica Pegula.

Talking with the media, Kvitova looked back on her early days on the tour: "When you are new on the tour, you’re just taking everything like a gift. meeting all the players in the locker room, for me, it was very special."

As for playing the top players on tour, the Czech star recalled: "I always played very, very good, and I made them trouble." (She did.) "I had ups and downs in my career," Kvitova said. "I still do have them."

Muguruza told the media that she was glad that she was able to deal with a kind of clay to which she isn't accustomed. Speaking of her return to Charleston, she said: " clay--I have to come back and have a different feeling."

She explained that it's harder to slide on green clay, that the clay is more compact, and that the bounces are tricky.

Shelby Rogers (photo courtesy of Volvo Car Open/Chris Smith)

Also winning today was hometown favorite Shelby Rogers, who defeated Kiki Mladenovic 6-4, 6-3 in the first round. Yesterday, rising Canadian star Leylah Fernandez upset 16th seed Zhang Shuai, and Amanda Anisimova defeated Magda Linettte.

Also winning today were 2016 champion Sloane Stephens, Anastasija Sevastova, Ons Jabeur, and Yulia Putintseva.

Monday, April 5, 2021

Players talk to the media on day 1 of the Volvo Car Open

On this, the opening day of the main draw of the 2021 Volvo Car Open, several players held press conferences throughout the day.

Top seed Ash Barty, just coming off of her victory in Miami, said that her body feels great, and that it helped that the Miami tournament spanned over two weeks, so she was able to get some rest. The Miami champion talked about her approach to winning and losing matches. "My self-worth," she said, "doesn't depend on wins and losses, or on my success as an athlete."

Barty--who won the French Open in 2019--said that, living in Australia, she had limited experience playing on clay. Because of Australia’s climate, it’s difficult to build clay courts there, and attempts to utilize both French and Italian clay have failed.

She credited working for a long time with the same team for the maintenance of her health and fitness. Her team knows her so well, she said, that she is able to rely on their guidance and skills at all times.

Of her Miami experience, Barty said : “It’s all about styaing in there and always giving yourself a chance. I think that’s one of the biggest lessons I learned from Miami.”

And of pre-season training, she was quick to say, “I like the hard work.”

Sloane Stephens, asked about how she might turn her game around this season, said, “There’s no turning around—just moving forward….Tennis is a sport that takes time, to get your groove back, to get your confidence back.”

Petra Kvitova, who has never shied away from talking about her difficulty navigating clay courts (though she won Madrid three times, and has also won in Stuttgart), said:

“For me, probably, it’s the worst transition, to go from hard to clay, especially with the movement and bouncing the ball. I think on the clay it’s very special because it never bounces the same….it’s hurting a little bit more, I would say, not only because of the movement with the slides, but as well it’s a high-low ball, anytime. It’s not only the wind, but it’s also the surfaces.”

Kvitova said that she did hit two or three times while she was in Boca Raton, but—with her typical good humor, she added: “but it doesn’t really matter, because for me, it’s may be even better to not have time to be prepared. For me, mentally, sometimes, it’s more tough than physically….”

The Czech wild card, who is seeded third in Charleston, said that, though she isn’t a stranger to sliding on a clay court, she doesn’t do it that much, and that she has to rely on her aggressive game on all surfaces. “That’s my game, and I’m gonna stick with it.”

Sofia Kenin, whose career was interrupted by surgery to remove her appendix while she was in Australia, has planned a busy clay season which includes Charleston, Stuttgart, Madrid, and Rome. Kenin was philosophical about her post-surgical entry into the tour; she said that she felt fine in Miami, but that she did get tired, which was to be expected. She said that goal is to play as many matches as possible and “get into a groove.”

The 2020 Australian Open champion, when asked about how she has handled the pressure of having won a major, was candid about this year’s Australian Open: “It wasn’t the best way of handling my emotions.”

Garbine Muguruza’s time with the media was especially personal and thoughtful. When asked if it’s easier for her to deal with losses at this stage of her career, she replied: “I would say yes, not because I accept them or anything like that—it’s just that I waste less energy being upset or being disappointed. I quickly get out of a bad energy and just start thinking faster, what do I have to do and what’s next? I don’t stay…in dark places.”

Muguruza said that she has also stopped thinking about rankings, and instead will “start focusing on playing well, getting to the last rounds. The ranking will come and you’ll have a nice number.” The Spanish star also said, about entering the clay season, “I’m very excited, and I have to control my excitement.”

I asked Garbine about how her extremely challenging off-season activities might translate to her game. She said that she guesses that these activities help her with tennis, but she does them because she loves doing them.

“Anything that challenges me mentally or physically gives me strength, gives me a wider perspective of effort….

“I love what it gives me—the self-confidence that I get once you achieve something. You know, when you go through something hard, and you do it…and that gives you so much power—it’s like an injection of confidence.”

Shelby Rogers, who grew up on Daniel Island and used to be a ballgirl at the tournament, was obviously very happy to be back at the Volvo Car Open. But she also enjoyed her lockdown period, during which she worked out in her house, caught up on her school assignments (she gets her psychology degree next month), did a Bible study, cooked more and learned some new recipes, and read more. “I was able to get into the routine and feel somewhat normal for a little bit….”

Rogers, who acknowledged that she has developed a stronger mentality as a tennis player, also talked about the comaraderie among the U.S. players, and said that’s really glad to be part of the group. “It’s so exciting, and it’s awesome to see U.S. tennis get that kind of recognition.”

Last on the schedule was 2019 champion Madison Keys, who talked about why she feels so comfortable at the Volvo Car Open: “I obviously grew up on green clay, and just constantly coming back and having the good memories here, and knowing that there’s been lots of matches when I’ve been close to down and out and have managed to come back and figure it out.”

Asked what it feels like to be a defending champion but to have to wait two years to defend, Keys laughed: “It feels a little weird. Everyone keeps saying ‘defending champion,’ but it doesn’t feel like it.”

“It’s obviously difficult, being a tennis player, and feeling like you can’t quite get your footing back, and getting that rhythm.”

Keys said that, in the past, when she’s been struggling, clay has slowed the game down and helped her piece together her game again.