Charleston: Volvo Car Open Preview
This year marks the 45th edition of the Volvo Car Open, held in Charleston, South Carolina. Photos: Volvo Car Open.

The clay court season has arrived and the Volvo Car Open, as always, headlines the opening week of tennis action on the dirt. The tournament boasts a decent line-up with six of the world’s top 20 players headlining the field this year. 2015 runner-up Madison Keys, is projected to be the top seed in this year’s draw, with the likes of former winners Venus Williams, Caroline Wozniacki and Samantha Stosur and former finalists Elena Vesnina and Lucie Safarova, all present as well.

The tournament was hit a last-minute withdrawal in newly-crowned Miami Open champion Johanna Konta. The Brit, who was the second seed in the draw, cited a right shoulder injury as the reason for her withdrawal.

Focus on Charleston

Founded in 1973 in Hilton Head, South Carolina, also the same year WTA’s founding, as the Family Circle Cup, the tournament stands out as the only tournament played on the unique green clay. In its early years, the tournament proved to be a happy hunting ground for local players as the first 13 editions saw an American storm to the title with Chris Evert taking home a total of eight, which is also a tournament record for most titles won. Steffi Graf then broke that feat in 1986 by defeating Evert in the final. In last year’s edition, Sloane Stephens won her biggest title to date, thus becoming the eighth American to lift the trophy.

From its inaugural edition till 2000, the tournament remained in Hilton Head, save 1975 and 1976 when it moved down south to Amelia Island, Florida. The tournament relocated to its current location Charleston, two-hours north of Hilton Head, in 2001. Just last year, the tournament was rebranded, for the first time in its history, as the Volvo Car Open when the car manufacturer became its title sponsor. Similar to its fellow Premier event in Stuttgart, the champion now takes away a car as part of her winnings. The tournament’s 56-player draw will witness its top eight seeds receive byes into the second round.

The grounds of Family Circle Tennis Centre, with the entrance of Volvo Car Stadium in the background. Photo credit: Volvo Car Open.
The grounds of Family Circle Tennis Centre, with the entrance of Volvo Car Stadium in the background. Photo: Volvo Car Open.

The Family Circle Tennis Centre will host tennis action throughout the week in Charleston, its main stadium being the Volvo Car Stadium. It is located on Daniel Island, a stone’s throw away from the city, by the Wando River. The area is also famous for its many creeks, harbours and beaches.

First quarter

Lucic-Baroni made her first Grand Slam semifinal in almost 18 years at the Australian Open two months back. Photo credit: Matthew Stockman/Getty Images.
Lucic-Baroni made her first Grand Slam semifinal in almost 18 years at the Australian Open two months back. Photo: Matthew Stockman/Getty Images.

22-year-old Keys takes her spot at the top of the draw as the tournament’s number one seed, the first time she is the top seed at a tournament. The American is set for her fifth consecutive appearance in Charleston, finishing runner-up in 2015 and making the last eight on her debut appearance in 2013 and an all-American derby is on the cards as fellow compatriot Shelby Rogers is a probable opponent in her opening match. Also present in Keys’ eighth are the dangerous Japanese player Naomi Osaka, who opens against Swede Johanna Larsson as well as 13th seed Zhang Shuai who plays Misaki Doi.

Across the quarter sits seventh seed Kiki Bertens. The Dutchwoman’s form off-late has not been encouraging and her draw does not get any easier with the likes of the 11th seed Mirjana Lucic-Baroni, Mona Barthel and Kateryna Bondarenko in her eighth. Lucic-Baroni, who just made the last eight of Miami, looks like the decent pick to make it through and continue her superb start to the year. The Croat made the last 16 a year ago, her best result here thus far and it will not be a surprise to see her do better this time around.

Keys launched her comeback from wrist surgery at Indian Wells a month ago and did fairly well by reaching the round of 16, this was followed by a third round exit in Miami last week. Still a tad undercooked, the top seed should be able to sail through her first couple matches but against Lucic-Baroni in the last eight, the Croat, who is in much better form, should upset the American for a place in the last four.

Prediction: Lucic-Baroni d. Keys

Second quarter

Vesnina is a two-time runner-up in Charleston. Photo credit: Icon Sportswire/Getty Images.
Vesnina is a two-time runner-up in Charleston. Photo: Icon Sportswire/Getty Images.

Last year’s runner-up Vesnina, seeded fourth this year, headlines the second quarter. The Russian played inspiring tennis that eventually took her to the title in Indian Wells, her biggest title to date. A runner-up in 2011 as well, it was here last year when she began her ascent up the rankings. The Russian faces either Asia Muhammad or Fanny Stollar in her first match of the week but her road does not get any easier with big-hitter Jelena Ostapenko and the feisty 14th seed Lauren Davis looming in the third round.

Fifth seed Wozniacki, who beat Vesnina in the 2011 final, is on a quarterfinal collision course with the Russian this time around. Fresh from a runner-up finish in Miami, her third such result in her last four tournaments. The Dane is definitely playing her best tennis in a while and looks to break the feat of those runner-up finishes as she eyes her third title in Charleston. Wozniacki’s eighth sees the likes of clay court specialist Sara Errani, the only Italian in the draw, face lucky loser Grace Min, in her opening match whilst Lousia Chirico and Annika Beck face off for a spot to play Wozniacki in the second round.

Wozniacki could be fatigued after a hectic past two months while Vesnina has the pressure of defending runner-up points from last year. Meanwhile, Errani, a multiple quarterfinalist here, looks to make up for lost time after missing out the Middle-Eastern swing with an injury. The Italian will be relieved to be finally back on her favourite surface and looks poised for another deep run once again. However, against double runner-up Vesnina in the last eight, the Russian’s love affair with Charleston could see her deny Errani a place in the semifinals.

Prediction: Vesnina d. Errani

Third quarter

Williams is searching for her first trophy on home ground since 2007. Photo credit: Ron Elkman/Getty Images.
Williams is searching for her first trophy on home ground since 2007. Photo: Ron Elkman/Getty Images.

The resurgent Williams, seeded third this year, begins her campaign against one of Lesia Tsurenko or last year’s quarterfinalist Laura Siegemund. Should Williams win that match, a last 16 epic is on the cards as 15th seed Safarova could clash with the American. The Czech however must get past Varvara Lepchenko in her opener first and then see off either qualifier Sofia Kenin or wildcard Bethanie Mattek-Sands in order to book a date with Williams.

On the other side, eighth seed Anastasija Sevastova plays either Spaniard Lara Arruabarrena or 2014 champion Andrea Petkovic in her opener. Also present in the Latvian’s eighth are 12th seed Yulia Putintseva, last year’s quarterfinalist and Marina Erakovic. Putintseva and Erakovic face Magda Linette and lucky loser Ons Jabeur in the first round respectively.

Putintseva looks poised for another quarterfinal run this year, the Kazakh clearly loving the surface. In addition, Williams’ form in 2017 has been commendable, with one runner-up, one semifinal and one quarterfinal appearance to her name already. The only name in the American’s eighth who stands a chance of toppling the American is Safarova and if the American manages to squeak past the Czech, it will be a rematch against Putintseva after their clash in the round of 16 last year which saw the Kazakh upset the American. With Williams playing much better tennis time, it could see a turnaround in the result.

Prediction: Williams d. Putintseva

Fourth quarter

Back on clay, Begu looks to turn her lull 2017 season around. Photo credit: Jack Thomas/Getty Images.
Back on clay, Begu looks to turn her lull 2017 season around. Photo: Jack Thomas/Getty Images.

Ninth seed Daria Gavrilova has now seen her named shift to the bottom of the draw, taking over Konta's spot after the Brit withdrew. This bottom quarter is the only one to not feature a qualifier and Gavrilova is guaranteed an American opponent in her first match of the week as Alison Riske plays wildcard Kayla Day. Seeded to meet Konta in the third round is 16th seed Katerina Siniakova, the Czech facing reigning Olympic champion Monica Puig in her opener. Meanwhile, Daria Kasatkina and Danka Kovinic face off in their opener with a chance to play Siniakova or Puig next.

Sixth-seeded Stosur has had a rather quiet 2017 thus far, the Aussie going winless on home turf January and has since won back-to-back matches on just three occasions, most recently in Miami last week. This year marks her 11th overall appearance at the tournament and her first opponent of the week being either former runner-up Jelena Jankovic or rising Russian Ekaterina Alexandrova. Other players present in the Aussie’s eighth are 10th seed Irina-Camelia Begu who faces Turk Cagla Buyukakcay in her opener while Slovak Kristina Kucova takes on qualifier Sílvia Soler Espinosa.

Gavrilova has only won back-to-back matches once so far in 2017. Nevertheless, the Aussie who fell to eventual champion Stephens in the last 16 a year ago, should go one round better this time around. Begu’s results have been spralling downwards since winning Florianopolis last August but now back on her favourite surface and a two-time quarterfinalist in Charleston, expect the Romanian to rediscover her form en route to her third consecutive quarterfinal showing at the tournament.

Prediction: Begu d. Gavrilova

Semifinals: Vesnina d. Lucic-Baroni, Williams d. Begu

Both Vesnina and Williams last met as recent as Indian Wells a fortnight ago where Vesnina stormed past the American in the last eight in a three-setter en route to claiming her biggest career title to date. After dropping her opening match in Miami last week, Vesnina will be rested and ready to go in Charleston where she seeks to go one win better than a year ago. For the Russian, this will no doubt be familiar territory as she aims to win her first title on the green clay on her third attempt.

On the other side of the net, the 36-year-old Williams eyes for revenge and will have the home support behind her. A former champion in 2004, the American will also be gunning for her first title on home soil in more than ten years since winning Memphis in 2007. Williams will not go down without a fight but it will be third-time lucky for the 30-year-old Vesnina, currently the oldest WTA tournament winner of 2017, who looks set to keep that feat going.

Final: Vesnina d. Williams