The oldest women-only professional tennis stage in the sport, the Volvo Car Open, in Charleston, South Carolina, will kick off tennis action on clay.
Having been put off last season due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 edition was eventually turned into an invitational team event, the Credit One Bank Invitational, held at the tail end of June that year.
This year’s field in the Palmetto State four past champions in Andrea Petkovic, Sloane Stephens, Kiki Bertens and Madison Keys.
Bertens, alongside world number one Ashleigh Barty, two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova and top-ranked American Sofia Kenin, lead the pack.
Focus on Charleston
Being the oldest tournament staged in women’s professional tennis, the Volvo Car Open’s history dates back nearly 50 years, with its first edition, then known as the Family Circle Cup, taking place in 1973.
The name Family Circle stuck with the tournament throughout its first 40 years on the WTA calendar, until Volvo became the new title sponsor, in 2016.
That feat made the now-defunct magazine company the longest-running sponsor where professional tennis is concerned.
The change was also a timely event for the Swedish automobile manufacturer, which opened its first US plant, located in the Lowcountry vicinity, at Ridgville, Berkeley County, in 2018.
Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova, Serena Williams, Venus Williams and Steffi Graf are among the slate of big names who have tasted success here.
It is also the former who is the most successful player of the tournament, having lifted the title eight times, with the last of those coming in 1985, having won her first five in five editions in succession, 1974-1978.
More recent champions include Justine Henin, Jelena Jankovic, Samantha Stosur, Caroline Wozniacki and Angelique Kerber, alongside home stars, Stephens and Keys.
Prior to relocation its current home, LTP Daniel Island (renamed from Family Circle Tennis Centre in 2019), the tournament was held in Hilton Head Island, a two-hour drive down south along the Lowcountry coast.
In 1975 and 1976, the event also made a short stint with its presence in Amelia Island, Florida.
The tournament, one of few WTA 500 tournaments to feature a 56-player draw, will hold this year’s edition without the presence of fans, with tournament organisers settling for a made-for-TV tournament as the resolution to the ongoing pandemic.
The stacked draw this year features more than a dozen home players gunning for the title, with the top eight seeds of the tournament each receiving a bye into the second round.
The tournament venue, located a stone’s throw away from Charleston city, is also home to Volvo Car Stadium, the venue’s largest stage, and the facility is situated by the Wando River.
For this year's staging, it will coincide with the tournament's renovation project to modernise Volvo Car Stadium.
With completion of the work expected in the fall of this year, a 3,000-seater stadium will be built on the Althea Gibson Club Court in lieu of the former court.
World number one Barty spearheads the draw, the Aussie’s first opponent of the week come in the form Japan’s Misaki Doi or the returning veteran, Yaroslava Shvedova of Kazakhstan.
Fifth seed Belinda Bencic, set for her fifth appearance here, sits at the other end of the quarter, the Swiss due to meet one of Russia’s Varvara Gracheva or Spaniard Paula Badosa in her opener.
Also in this quarter are 10th seed Elena Rybakina, who meets Caty McNally in the first round, and 13th seed Amanda Anisimova, the American facing Poland’s Magda Linette.
Charleston native Shelby Rogers is also present in this quarter and she meets France’s Kristina Mladenovic at the first hurdle, while Latvia’s Anastasija Sevastova plays Anastasia Potapova in their first-rounder.
Prediction: Barty d. Badosa
The winners of the two recent editions lead the pack in this quarter, namely Bertens (2018) and Keys (2019), and the former, the fourth seed, will take on Francesca Di Lorenzo or a qualifier in her opener.
Meanwhile, defending champion Keys, seeded eighth, could be meeting another former champion Stephens or a qualifier in her first match of the week.
Ninth seed Marketa Vondrousova clashes with Timea Babos in her opener and should the Czech win that match, will go on to face Australia’s Ajla Tomljanovic or American Christina McHale next.
On the other hand, 15th seed Veronika Kudermetova drew a qualifier in her opening match, with the likes of Mexican Renata Zarazua or local wildcard Emma Navarro looming next.
Prediction: Vondrousova d. Kudermetova
Kvitova, making her second appearance in the Lowcountry, could be facing her second Czech opposition in a row here, having loss out to Kristyna Pliskova in her first match here in 2018.
However, that will be the case if Marie Bouzkova gets past the first hurdle, the younger Czech facing off against a qualifier, for a spot against Kvitova next.
Sixth seed, the in-form Garbine Muguruza will take on a qualifier in her first match of the week, while 2014 champion goes head-to-head with 11th seed Yulia Putintseva in the first round.
16th seed Zhang Shuai, on a collision course with Kvitova in the third round, meets dangerous Canadian youngster Leylah Fernandez.
Other first-rounders in this quarter see the likes of Montenegrin Danka Kovinic and Kazakh Zarina Diyas facing a qualifier in their respective matches.
Prediction: Muguruza d. Fernandez
Second seed Kenin is due for an all-American clash in her opener, the American number one taking on the winner between Lauren Davis and Madison Brengle.
Belgium’s Elise Mertens, one of 2021's most consistent names, seeded seventh here, on the other hand, will take on one of American Bernarda Pera or Frenchwoman Alizé Cornet.
In a clash between youth and experience, 14th seed Coco Gauff will go up against Bulgarian Tsvetana Pironkova, while 12th seed Ons Jabeur and Italy’s Martina Trevisan meet in their first-round encounter.
Other opening-round matches in this quarter see the likes Camila Giorgi taking on local wildcard Hailey Baptiste, and Nao Hibino of Japan squaring off against Russia’s Liudmila Samsonova.
Prediction: Mertens d. Gauff