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It’s onto the clay in Charleston for Barty and co…

After the hard court season is done and dusted for the time being with the conclusion of Miami, attention on the WTA Tour turns to the clay, beginning with the Volvo Car Open in Charleston, South Carolina, which begins on Monday.

I’m excited to get on the green clay in Charleston. We’ll look forward to getting over to Europe and get on some red clay in Stuttgart, Madrid, Rome. That’s the plan for us. Looking forward to it... Hopefully, touch wood, all the cities can stay safe and we can play environments where we are safe and can go out there and do what we love doing. Ash Barty

Ash Barty, the World No 1 and Miami Open champion leads a strong field on the green clay courts of the WTA 500 in Charleston, the largest women’s only event in pro tennis in the US.

Barty’s ranking at the top of the game remains secure until at least Madrid, and she is looking at making the quick transition to clay with her eye firmly on building towards Paris, where she won her only Grand Slam title two years ago.

2020 Australian Open champion Sofia Kenin is the 2nd seed, while Petra Kvitova, Belinda Bencic, Garbiñe Muguruza, Elise Mertens and Madison Keys fill other seeded spots in the draw, which also includes Sloane Stephens and Coco Gauff, but Kiki Bertens, who would have been seeded at No 4 is a late withdrawal.

Keys, Stephens, and Andrea Petkovic are all former champions.

While the top 8 seeds all receive byes in the first round, the 56-draw opens on Monday with Amanda Anisimova and Elena Rybakina headlining the order of play.

Barty returns to Charleston fresh off her successful trophy defence in Miami, where she earned her second title of 2021 and her 10th overall.

“I’m excited to get on the green clay in Charleston,” said Barty, who has now won 13 of her last 16 matches against Top-10 opponents.

“We’ll look forward to getting over to Europe and get on some red clay in Stuttgart, Madrid, Rome. That’s the plan for us. Looking forward to it.

“Stuttgart is a new tournament for me. Madrid, I love playing there, and obviously Rome is a beautiful city before we go into Paris.

“Hopefully, touch wood, all the cities can stay safe and we can play environments where we are safe and can go out there and do what we love doing.”

The 24-year-old finds herself in a quarter of the draw crowded with the likes of Anastasija Sevastova, 5th-seed Bencic, 10th seed Rybakina, 13th seed Anisimova and hometown favourite Shelby Rogers.

Meanwhile, a pair of former Charleston champions, Stephens (2016) and the 8th seed Keys (2019), find themselves sandwiched in a lethal second quarter, with the possibility of a rematch of the Keys v Stephens US Open final of 2017 in the second round.

Stephens holds a 3-1 head-to-head advantage against her longtime friend, though it was Keys who claimed their most recent encounter on these very same courts in 2019, a 7-6(6) 4-6 6-2 triumph in the quarter-finals.

Garbiñe Muguruza has notched up 20 match wins this season making her the WTA Tour leader

© Mark Brown/Getty Images

In the bottom half of the draw, a pair of two-time major titlists bookend the 3rd quarter — 3rd-seeded wildcard Kvitova and 6th seed Muguruza.

If a Czech-Spanish quarter-final to indeed materialise, they would first have to navigate potential challenges from a group that includes 18-year-old Monterrey champion Leylah Fernandez, 2014 Volvo Car Open winner Andrea Petkovic, 11th seed Yulia Putintseva and 16th seed Shuai Zhang.

Kvitova and Muguruza last met in the Doha final earlier this year, with the Czech claiming a 6-2 6-1 victory, her 5th in 6 matches against the Spaniard, but Muguruza is having a pretty good year herself, notching up WTA Tour-best 20 match wins this season, which includes 3 finals and a WTA 500 title in Dubai.

“I do feel like I’ve played a lot, that’s for sure,” said Muguruza, ranked No 13. “But it’s positive.

“Of course, I have a good win-loss record. I think it’s the right way to feel, the right way to work.

“So I’m happy more than anything, just happy to be able to continue and keep playing tournaments, to not slow down too much.”

No 2 seed Kenin has played just 12 matches this year, with a 7-5 win-loss record, her year slowed by the emergency appendectomy she underwent in Melbourne, but she is looking to regain her Grand Slam-contenting form by getting some matches under her belt.

The American reached the Roland Garros final last year, but lost to Iga Swiatek, 6-4 6-1, and is sure to face challenges in her quarter, which includes 7th seed Mertens, 12th seed Ons Jabeur, Roland Garros quarter-finalist Martina Trevisan, Camila Giorgi, Aliza Cornet and 17-year-old Gauff, who is making her tournament debut.

“It’s going to be my first WTA tournament on green clay, so I’m excited for that,” said Gauff, who earlier this year reached her first WTA 500 semi in Adelaide and first WTA 1000 quarter-final in Dubai.

So the projected quarter-finals are likely to be Barty against Bencic, Vondrousova v Keys, Muguruza v Kvitova, and Mertens v Kenin.

Among the first round matches to watch include Mladenovic-Rogers, Rybakina-McNally, Stephens-Wang and Gauff-Pironkova.

The tournament in Charleston was not held in 2020 due to the pandemic, so the defending champion from 2019 is Keys, who beat Caroline Wozniacki for the title.

Madison Keys is the defending champion in Charleston, having defeated Caroline Wozniacki in the 2019 final

Courtesy of Volvo Car Open/Facebook

Getting back to Barty, her win on Sunday was slightly marred by Bianca Andreescu’s unfortunate injury that forced the Canadian to retire when the Aussie lead 6-3, 4-0.

Nonetheless, Barty is a champion in Miami for the second straight time, and this year it is also a validation of the No 1 ranking she has held for 70 weeks and counting.

“I know there has been a lot of talk about the ranking,” Barty said later, “but I didn’t play at all last year and I didn’t improve any of my points whatsoever. There were girls who had the chance to improve theirs, so I felt like I thoroughly deserve my spot at the top of the rankings.

“I think everyone needs to understand that it’s a pandemic. It’s probably a once-in-a-lifetime thing for a lot of us to go through, so it’s a bit of a difficult situation.

“But yeah, no, it doesn’t ever really get to me. I mean, it’s just what people say and I can’t change their opinion, so it doesn’t stress me out at all.”

Barty opted to stay in Australia while the pandemic raged worldwide, and so did not play an official match for 11 months.

After a 48-hour journey with her coach Craig Tyzzer from Brisbane to Miami, Barty faced a match point right out of the box but survived the queasy moment against qualifier Kristina Kucova before knocking off 3 consecutive top 10 players – Aryna Sabalenka, Elina Svitolina and Andreescu.

Barty followed up her Roland Garros win by winning the 2019 year-end WTA Finals, but could not defend in Paris while Naomi Osaka and Iga Swiatek won the Grand Slams she sat out.

In Miami she re-established herself as the top player in the game by joining an illustrious list of players who have successfully defended their titles there – Steffi Graf, Monica Seles, Arantxa Sánchez Vicario, Venus and Serena Williams.

“I feel like I haven’t earned the right to be in a list of names with those champions,” Barty said. “They are genuine champions of our sport, legends of our sport.

“I think it’s extremely humbling to be mentioned in the same sentence as those champions, but I feel like I’ve got a long, long way to go yet before I can be in discussion with those names.”

Ever humble, Barty won 12 straight matches in Miami, and is a blazing 14-2 this year.

“Playing against her is something completely different,” Andreescu told the media later. “She hits a good ball.

“She doesn’t play like a lot of the players on tour. She likes to mix it up, like me. That’s not fun to play against.”

Ash Barty celebrated her French Open title in 2019 when she beat Marketa Vondrousova in the final

© Clive Mason/Getty Images

Barty could now gain significant ground, and improve on her 154-53 career record on the clay, a winning percentage of 74.4 percent, which is the 4th-best among all WTA players, with Osaka at 67.6% and Muguruza on 66.9.

While Osaka has yet to establish herself on the grass, Barty won 8 of her 9 matches, including a title in Birmingham in 2019.

“Don’t get me wrong,” Barty said, “I’m still counting down the days to the grass season, without a doubt.

“I think probably in 2019, throughout each week that I played, I felt like I got better and better on the clay and obviously grew in confidence and grew in experience.

“If it turns out we have a great clay-court season, that’s fantastic, and if we don’t, then it’s not the end of the world.”

Barty has an ambitious schedule in the months ahead, including the Volvo Car Open in Charleston, and she is prepared to stay out on the road for the entire season.

“It wasn’t easy,” Barty said of the decision to stay home. “I think at times my head and my heart were pulling in separate directions, but we know that for me personally and for my team, all the decisions we made in 2020 were for the right reasons, and that made me settle a bit easier with that, without a doubt.”



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