Editor's note: Shortly after this piece was published, Sloane Stephens withdrew from the Volvo Car Open in Charleston.
Each and every year, the first three months of the professional tennis season are contested predominantly on hard courts. On both the ATP and WTA tours, the players seek to reach peak efficiency during that stretch from January through March, hoping to perform productively at the Australian Open, wanting to achieve meaningfully again when they show up for the prestigious tournaments in the United States at Indian Wells and Miami. That is a particularly enjoyable time of the year for a multitude of fans with a rekindled interest in the sport.
But now the competitors are leaving the hard courts behind them, heading out onto the clay, and hoping to be at their zeniths for Roland Garros starting in late May. This week, the women are launching their clay-court campaign at the Volvo Car Open in Charleston, South Carolina. The field is strong across the board, but as soon as I took a look at the draw, four individuals stood out for me as particularly intriguing participants for different reasons: Sloane Stephens, Naomi Osaka, Petra Kvitova and Madison Keys. This tournament just might tell us quite a bit about what to expect from them over the course of the clay-court circuit.
Stephens, of course, will be a central figure in South Carolina after her spectacular run at the Miami Open. In that tournament, she toppled none other than Garbine Muguruza, Angelique Kerber, Victoria Azarenka and Jelena Ostapenko in succession to claim the crown. Those four remarkable women have won a total of seven major tournaments among them. For Stephens—who had been mired in an abysmal slump—this was a comeback triumph of mammoth proportions. After her startling U.S. Open victory last September, she lost eight matches in a row.
That sequence lasted until she won a couple of matches in Acapulco this season, and then she ousted Azarenka at Indian Wells. Considering the opponents Stephens accounted for in Florida, her Miami title run was even more impressive than what she did at the Open in some respects. Now Stephens resides for the first time in the Top 10. So what should we anticipate from her in Charleston, and can she replicate her hard-court feats on the clay?
Yes, she clearly could. Two years ago, Stephens captured the Charleston title. She is irrefutably an all-surface player. Stephens is one of the most able defenders in the world of women’s tennis. Her flat forehand is a primary strength. She has no glaring weaknesses, and demonstrated both at the 2017 U.S. Open and in Miami last week that she is a highly intelligent match player with excellent instincts, and soundness off the ground that few of her rivals can match. Stephens might suffer a letdown at the Volvo Car Open after securing such an important title, but, if she can avoid the potential pitfalls of the early rounds, as long as she adjusts swiftly to different conditions, there is no reason why she can’t prevail on the South Carolina clay for the second time.
While the No. 4 seed Stephens will be the favorite of the American fans when she steps on court for her opening match (after a bye) in the second round this week, another woman who will capture the hearts and minds of many observers will be the beguiling Naomi Osaka. This stylish Japanese player displayed extraordinary power and surprising precision when she won Indian Wells a few weeks ago, rising from No. 44 in the world up to No. 22 with that triumph. Then she upended Serena Williams in the first round of Miami before bowing out of that event against the wily Elina Svitolina.
Osaka’s game is plainly better equipped for faster courts. She is a remarkably big hitter with an explosive if somewhat unreliable forehand, and a gem of a two-handed backhand, not to mention a terrific serve that can win her countless free points. It will be fascinating to find out if she can replicate the sparkling form she exhibited so persuasively in recent weeks on hard courts when she tests herself this week on the dirt. She is seeded tenth, but Osaka has made such a stunning surge as of late that some authorities will be expecting her to play nothing less than top-of-the-line tennis.
Will she manage to live up to those lofty expectations this week? I have my doubts, although I would love to be wrong. This is not to say that her explosive style of play and the unrelenting potency of her strokes can’t carry her deep into clay-court draws. She can blow opponents off the court on that surface as well. But it may take her a few tournaments to get her bearings on the clay, to find the added patience and consistency she will need, to flourish in matches featuring longer rallies and more strenuous points. It will be fun watching her meet a different challenge as she establishes herself as a top-tier player.
Meanwhile, a 28-year-old left-hander from the Czech Republic will be in Charleston as the No. 2 seed, trying to make her presence known, knowing that she can beat anyone on any given day—no matter what the surface or the situation. Yet the fact remains that Petra Kvitova has long been more comfortable in quicker conditions. She won Wimbledon on grass in both 2011 and 2014 with sterling, final-round victories over Maria Sharapova and Eugenie Bouchard respectively.
Kvitova is perhaps the finest shot-maker in all of women’s tennis, able to thread a needle off either side when she is at her best, capable of releasing dazzling winners off both sides with astonishing regularity. She is, however, a streaky player who can also beat herself on days when she is struggling to find her range. And yet, Kvitova was a semifinalist at Roland Garros in 2012 and she has twice taken the clay-court title at Madrid (in 2011 and 2015). She knows how to construct points on clay, to wait for her openings, and to impose herself as convincingly as she does more frequently on faster courts. She is a player with a propensity for the unimaginable, a flair for the dramatic. Knowing these truths about the enormously appealing yet sometimes enigmatic Kvitova is essential in prognosticating her performance in Charleston. The hope here is that she gets on a roll at this tournament. She is a joy to watch when she is in stellar form.
Another player that I enjoy observing when she is playing the game on her own terms is Madison Keys, a very determined young woman who has long been in and around the upper reaches of the sport. She has finished the past five years among the Top 40 in the WTA rankings. For the last three seasons, she has been stationed among the Top 20. In 2016, she concluded the year at No. 8 after rising to a career high of No. 7 that autumn. And last year Keys made it to her first major final. On that occasion, she was unable to do herself justice as Stephens picked her apart methodically. Keys was clearly hobbled by a crippling leg injury, but made no excuses. Perhaps Stephens—who made only six unforced errors in two flawless sets—would have been unbeatable even if Keys had been at full strength.
Keys—who is seeded seventh and could meet Stephens in the Charleston quarterfinals—has one of the best serves in women’s tennis, delivered with a smooth motion, produced elegantly, featuring extraordinary accuracy and power. That often magnificent serve is the cornerstone of her game, coupled with bursts of brilliance from the backcourt. Her forehand is her make-or-break stroke, the shot that can win her matches with its depth and pace, the stroke that can let her down on afternoons when her timing is off and her technique not up to par. She does not have much margin for error on that side.
Although she is more highly regarded among insiders for her play on hard and grass courts, the fact remains that Keys was a finalist in Charleston three years ago, and she also advanced to the 2016 title round in Rome. On the latter occasion, she upended both Kvitova and Muguruza before losing to Serena Williams. Keys has irrefutably demonstrated that she can hit through the court on clay, almost as well as she done on quicker courts. Essentially, Keys sticks to the aggressive, fast striking, assertive brand of tennis that she displays on other surfaces when playing on clay. She got to the Australian Open quarterfinals at the start of this season, but Charleston offers her the opportunity to take her game to an entirely different level.
The same could be said as well for most of the field in South Carolina. The Frenchwoman Caroline Garcia is the top seed in Charleston. Indian Wells finalist Daria Kasatkina is seeded third, one place behind Kvitova. From the top to the bottom of the draw, the scales are well balanced with players who are eager to start the clay-court season in style. The view here is that the Volvo Car Open is going to be compelling from beginning to end.