March 31, 2017–We’re in South Carolina and it’s 2017, which means one of two things: either the Great American Eclipse or the 45th edition of the Volvo Car Open are arriving. I’ll be back later this summer to put on the special sunglasses to watch the moon block out the sun over Columbia, but today we’re headed to Charleston to catch some tennis stars.
No, there’s no Simona Halep, no Angelique Kerber, no Karolina Pliskova, no Garbine Muguruza. So what? They were tossed out of Miami. It’s the likes of Caroline Wozniacki, Venus Wiliams, and the the streaking comets of Johanna Konta and Elena Vesnina in Charleston.
This tournament is still blessed by the amazing run of Elena Vesnina, ranked #114 at the start of qualifying last year, winning all the up to the final against titlist Sloane Stephens. That spot in the finals propelled Vesnina into the main draw at Wimbledon, where she once again shocked the tennis world by making the semifinals at SW19. Throw in a women’s doubles gold medal in Rio and that made for one hell of a year. She ended up moving 100 spots to #14, and her victory at Indian Wells took her even higher, to #13. She’s got points to defend here in Charleston: 305 of them to be exact. Vesnina played under the radar to some extent in 2016, but with the BNP Paribas Open title under her belt, no one will be letting their guard down against the 30-year-old from Sochi for the rest of her career. When I first saw her play in Montreal seven years ago, I only knew of her as Vera Zvonereva’s doubles partner. Now she’ll remembered for everything but that.
Stephens isn’t in Charleston this year due to foot surgery and Vesnina’s the #4 seed. Will the 2016 runner up raise the trophy and win the Volvo this year?
But Stephens is a 2017 champ in her own right, as her Soles4Souls organization attempts to collect 5,000 pairs of shoes during the tournament to make life better for people.
The Volvo Car Open will also be the last time we can watch some serious women’s tennis without the focus on The Return of Maria Sharapova. Expect all eyes, microphones and keyboards to turn to the performance-enhancing Sharapova as she plays in Stuttgart and Madrid over the next six weeks.
Madison Keys is a top seed at a Premier level event for the first time. She was the 8 seed last year and received a first round bye before coming out and hitting the wall in a round of 32 loss to Laura Siegemund. She’ll have more than enough competition to keep her from making an easy run to the title. Given her recent performances, it’s probable that the #1 seed will be denied a title in Charleston this year.
We’re not going to gloat over the fact that the Miami semifinals featured three Charleston players or that the Miami final is a potential Volvo Car Open final. We’re just going to celebrate the wide open field that is every lower-ranked player’s dream tournament. Let’s see who can string together some wins and play on Stadium Court a week from Sunday. And please, don’t forget about your qualifiers. That would be a big mistake. Just ask Belinda Bencic and the other competitors who were steam-rolled by Vesnina last year.
—S. Fogleman, Tennis Atlantic