Monday, April 11, 2016

Some final thoughts on Charleston

Photo by Daniel Ward
If you want to see crowds of people who love women's tennis, all you have to do is go to Charleston in April. People all over the city are talking about it, and those who attend the matches tend to be pretty sophisticated in their understanding of the game. Charleston crowds also love to watch doubles, and they are quick to spot and support a lesser-known player.

Photo by Daniel Ward
The Charleston crowd also has a much-appreciated sense of humor. In 2010, when Vera Zvonareva performed the greatest racket break of all time, her actions were applauded and cheered by onlookers, some of whom then began to mimic the "Aussie! Aussie! Aussie!" cheer (Zvonareva was getting destroyed by Sam Stosur) on behalf of Vera. This year, when Yulia Putintseva took a little break to do some yelling (as she is prone to do), the crowd yelled along with her, then gave her some applause. I can't imagine these things happening anywhere but Charleston.

Every tournament has its ups and downs. This year, Jelena Jankovic, who is beloved by Charleston fans, had to withdraw before the tournament began, though she stayed on site for a few days to appear with her mother at a luncheon. Last year's champion, Angelique Kerber, had to retire during her semifinal because of illness, and the 2014 champion, Andrea Petkovic, went out in the second round.

Photo by Daniel Ward
But there were also plenty of "ups." Fans got an up-close chance to see exciting young stars like Daria Kasatkina, Monica Puig, Kiki Mladenovic, Caroline Garcia, and Daria Gavrilova. They witnessed a dramatic tour comeback from 2011 runner-up Elena Vesnina, and an enjoyable segment in the rise of Laura Siegemund, whose matches were all quite exciting to watch.

Volvo's first year as the title sponsor brought several new features to the event. The addition of music, on-court announcing and post-match interviews on Althea Gibson Club Court was a very nice touch, as was the additional jumbotron on Billie Jean King Stadium Court. But the biggest innovation was full-court streaming that allowed fans to simply scan their mobile devices with a code and stream action on courts all around the grounds, including practice courts.

Photo by Daniel Ward
The Volvo Car Open (formerly Family Circle Cup) is of great historic interest in the world of women's tennis, and it tends to be a star-launching event. Last year, for example, Angelique Kerber ended a slump by winning in Charleston, then going on to win three more tournaments--and then starting 2016 by winning her first major. Sloane Stephens just won her biggest title to date in Charleston, and is gaining the momentum that has eluded her for the last few years.

Caroline Garcia and Kiki Mladenovic, a "pre-Olympics" French team, reached two other finals this year, but their first win together was at the Volvo Car Open. And though she was stopped by Stephens in the semifinals, 18-year-old Daria Kasatkina continued her recent success, this time showing off her considerable skills on clay courts.

Venus Williams was back in Charleston this year, and that's always a special event. Even Martha Stewart was there, and spent some time in the ESPN booth.

Photo by Daniel Ward
There were some great matches. My favorite was the semifinal played between Elena Vesnina and Sara Errani; it was all beautiful tennis from start to finish. Another stand-out was the 28-point third-set tiebreak match contested by Kiki Mladenovic and Mirjana Lucic-Baroni. Kasatkina held a match point against Stephens in their exciting quarterfinal, and of course, there was the final, which featured a thrilling first set. Elena Vesnina, by the way, is the first qualifier ever to reach the final in Charleston.

WTA players are especially fond of the Charleston event, too. They get to eat at wonderful restaurants, they attend a very popular players' party, they receive daily gifts, and they enjoy the relaxed familiarity of an event some of them have competed in for years. This year, the top eight seeds drove Volvos around town. Laura Siegemund, who struggled to find the right word to describe the players' experience at the Volvo Car Open--she didn't know if her knowledge of English was good enough--finally came up with "spice"--that something extra that other tournaments don't have. I think she got it just right.

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