The women are back! On Day 1 of the Credit One Bank Invitational, the team event being played at in Charleston, got under way with early wins for Sofia Kenin and Leylah Fernandez, representing their respective teams of Peace and Kindness.
I knew I didn't have a lot of match play after my last tournament, so I just tried to take my time and play my aggressive game. I tried to not show it but I'm trying to be a perfectionist. I guess I wanted to win 0 and 0, but it was impossible. I'll take this win. Sofia Kenin
Kenin, the Australian Open champion, dominated fellow American Alison Riske to put Team Peace on the board first, before the Canadian hit back for Team Kindness in the evening at Daniel Island.
It was 16 WTA players first taste of competitive tennis in the coronavirus era and they were calling their own lines, and picking up towels and balls.
With no spectators, they rely on fellow team members in the stands for encouragement and are relishing being back on a match court, even if this event is unsanctioned and carries no ranking points.
The event’s health guidelines include on-site testing, daily temperature tests and health questionnaires, sanitising equipment at high touch areas, mandatory face masks for all personnel, and housing for players located within walking distance of the stadium, while ach player has her own lounge around the stadium to cheer on teammates.
On Monday, Madison Keys, the captain of Team Kindness, made her selections alongside Team Peace skipper Bethanie Mattek-Sands at the Volvo Car Stadium, site of this week’s Credit One Bank Invitational.
Bianca Andreescu, however, withdrew from the event, delaying again the Canadian’s return to matchplay.
“After carefully deliberating with her team, Bianca decided that playing the exhibition was a bit premature, and that she’d spend this time continuing to focus her efforts on training at home with her team to prepare for the full return to play,” the Octagon agency, which represents Andreescu, said in an emailed statement.
She was replaced in the draw by Caroline Dolehide of the United States.
Keys’ squad boasts a two-time Grand Slam champion in Victoria Azarenka, another major titlist in Sloane Stephens, French Open semi-finalist Amanda Anisimova and an Olympic singles gold medalist in Monica Puig as well as Alison Riske and Shelby Rogers, a Charleston resident who has roamed its green clay since childhood; plus Leylah Fernandez, one of the hottest players in tennis before the tour was suspended in March
Plus, of course, there’s Keys, the defending Charleston singles champion and a four-time Grand Slam semifinalist.
Mattek-Sands is a five-time Grand Slam doubles champion, an Olympic gold medalist in mixed doubles and twice a winner in Charleston, where the six-day event is being held and while Team Peace lacks the depth of its opposition, it has Kenin, the latest Grand Slam champion alongside Jennifer Brady, Eugenie Bouchard, Caroline Dolehide, Danielle Collins, Ajla Tomljanovic, and local girl Emma Navarro.
In February, the 21-year-old Kenin took home the Australian Open trophy. and her WTA ranking remains frozen at a career-high No 4.
“She’s going to be really hyped, so she’s going to get the team spirit going,” says Kenin, who teamed with Mattek-Sands at four tournaments earlier this year. “Hopefully we’ll play some doubles together.”
“You can’t pass up this year’s Australian Open champ; we’ve played doubles together,” said Mattek-Sands during Monday’s team draft. “And I don’t think there’s anyone feistier than her right now.”
The format provides for match wins with a value of one point on Day 1, but, like in the Laver Cup, this increases each day, adding to the drama.
Tuesday’s lineup sported 4 singles matches, although the final two were postponed at 10pm due rain, but doubles will soon play a pivotal role to the success of each team.
After an earlier rain delay briefly held up the start of play, Kenin made her first appearance since winning at Lyon, France on indoor hard in early March, and her timing was, understandably, inconsistent at the start In the windy conditions.
Helped by the fact that clay is by far Riske’s least preferred surface, it took the world No.19 five games to get on the board.
Last month, Riske competed in the UTR Pro Match Series on hard courts, but today, she found herself back at square one, doing most of the scrambling around the court.
Kenin won 8 of 9 games before double faulting to drop serve for the first time, but she quickly regained control, stepping in on her opponent’s serve to quickly secure the first team point of the competition.
“I knew I didn’t have a lot of match play after my last tournament, so I just tried to take my time and play my aggressive game,” Kenin told Tennis Channel afterward winning through, 6-1 6-1. “I tried to not show it but I’m trying to be a perfectionist.
“I guess I wanted to win 0 and 0, but it was impossible. I’ll take this win.”
Team Peace’s early lead was erased in the next match, as an all-teenage affair went the way of Team Kindness’s Leylah Fernandez.
The 17-year-old Canadian ousted 19-year-old Charleston resident Emma Navarro, 6-4 6-0, in a rematch of last year’s Roland Garros junior girls’ singles final, also won by Fernandez.
“It’s our first match here in Charleston, and I’m super happy to be able to get the win for Team Kindness,” said World No 118 Fernandez in her on-court post-match chat. “Hopefully, we’ll keep going this way.”
The Canadian has transitioned her game impressively into the pro ranks, highlighted by a strong February that saw her beat World No 5 Belinda Bencic in a Fed Cup Finals qualifier tie and reach the Acapulco final after needing to qualify at the event.
Leading 3-2, Fernandez held in a game spanning more than 10 minutes, a consolidation that would prove to be significant.
The 17-year-old staved off a break point in the 10th game to close out the first set, and continued to demonstrate excellent disguise when pulling out her drop shot to keep Navarro in check.
Fernandez’s ability to open up the court enabled her to gain speed and run away from the American.
Speaking with Tracy Austin and Ted Robinson on Tennis Channel after her 6-4 6-0 win, Fernandez said: “I’m super happy to be able to get the win for Team Kindness.
“Honestly, it was really hard in the beginning. I know Emma well. In the second set, I just found my groove and everything went in for me.”
In the third match of the day, Team Peace’s Danielle Collins opened up a 4-1 lead on her fellow American Amanda Anisimova before thunderstorms moved through the area and interrupted the tilt for the night.
The remainder of that match and the nightcap between Ajla Tomljanovic (Team Peace) and Shelby Rogers (Team Kindness) were postponed to Wednesday, with the teams tied at 1-1 overnight.
“Team competition is really different, especially for tennis players,” reflected Keys. “We’re not super used to it. Speaking personally, I get so nervous during Fed Cup, just because I’m playing for other people.
“Playing for a team, you care so much about how you’re doing, because you want to do well for your teammates.”
Playing this week in a format that rewards doubles success with the final day only fielding doubles matches, Mattek-Sands will look to coax the most out Team Peace.
“I personally love team competition,” says Mattek-Sands. “I’m a big team player; I think it’s a lot of fun; I think you can get a lot of energy out of it. It’s all about energy. What better way to do that than with a team?”
With its progressively increasing point structure and team format, the Credit One Bank Invitational is the women’s answer to Laver Cup and, depending on player response, the event may herald future iterations, even when the pandemic has passed.
While there is no coverage in the UK, the US broadcaster, Tennis Channel, celebrated the kickoff of the Credit One Bank Invitational in Charleston by taking over the Terrace Theater on Tuesday to provide a free, drive-in event for locals.
This was the first time a tennis event has been staged as a drive-in, and it provided a unique opportunity to bring together tennis fans of all ages while maintaining social distancing.
The tournament is operating without spectators, and Tennis Channel’s pop-up event allowed guests in 26 cars to safely watch the night match as elite WTA players battled it out in team competition.
The local drive-in theater, which was themed out for the event, gave away free popcorn, refreshments, and Tennis Channel swag to all guests in attendance.