Defending champion Angelique Kerber is part of a start-studded field featuring Venus Williams, Belinda Bencic, Lucie Safarova and more, as the newly-named Volvo Car Open kicks off the WTA Tour’s clay-court season.
After the first quarter of the season played mainly on outdoor hard courts, culminating in the major events of Indian Wells and Miami, the eyes of the tennis world turn towards clay. Many of the WTA Tour’s strongest players will opt to begin their warm-up for the French Open at what was, until last year, the Family Circle Cup. The quality is present even outside of the top 20, as 2010 champion Samantha Stosur, Germany's Sabine Lisicki, fast-rising Daria Kasatkina and former world no. 1 Jelena Jankovic headline just some of the players heading to the only women’s tennis event held on US clay.
The Volvo Car Open has another claim to uniqueness: It is the only professional event on the ATP World or WTA Tours held on green clay.
First played in 1973, the year that the WTA Tour was formed in a landmark development for women’s sport and tennis, the history of the
Venus Williams in 2016 action. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
Volvo Car Open is intimately intertwined with the evolution of the WTA Tour itself. Rosie Casals, the first winner of the event when it was held in Hilton Head, was one of the ‘Original 9’ – the women, led by Billie Jean King, who signed $1 agreements with World Tennis publications publisher Gladys Heldman in 1970, to compete in what would become the Virginia Slims Series. The Volvo Car Open’s stadium court is named after King herself. The Original 9 were reunited in April 2012 at the tournament’s 40-year anniversary.
The then-Family Circle Cup was the first women’s tournament to offer $100,000 in prize money and the first to be broadcast on network TV. Appropriately for an event which has played such a formative role in the evolution of the WTA Tour, its champions’ roll reads like a list of many of the all-time greats of women’s tennis. Chris Evert reigns supreme with an amazing eight titles between 1974 and 1985, one of just four women in the Open Era to win the same event seven or more times, with four-time champions Martina Navratilova (1982-3, 1988, 1990) and Steffi Graf (1986-7, 1989, 1993) also occupying prominent places on the roll of honour.
Gabriela Sabatini, Conchita Martinez, Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario, Martina Hingis, Jennifer Capriati, Mary Pierce and Venus Williams are also on the list of winners, while over the past decade Serena Williams has been the most dominant player, winning in Charleston in 2008 (d. Vera Zvonareva), 2012 (d. Lucie Safarova) and 2013 (d. Jelena Jankovic). Now defending champion at the Australian Open, Angelique Kerber returns this year to defend the trophy she won at the Family Circle Tennis Centre last season.
Sabine Lisicki in 2016. (Photo by Paul Crock/AFP/Getty Images)
Sabine Lisicki (2009), Samantha Stosur (2010) and Caroline Wozniacki (2011) are also notable champions, of whom Stosur went on to become a US Open victor, while Lisicki and Wozniacki both reached Grand Slam finals. The Dane, of course, would become world no. 1. Andrea Petkovic defeated Jana Cepelova in the 2014 final to announce her return to the top echelons of women’s tennis after a painful series of injuries; she would go on to reach the semifinals of the French Open, and win titles in Bad Gastein and Sofia, cracking the top 10 for the second time at the beginning of 2015.
Petkovic is one of a true treat of a draw in Charleston this April. Outside of the competitors already mentioned, there is unlikely to be a dull match in the entirety of this event. Grand Slam finalists in Sara Errani and Eugenie Bouchard take the stage, with both having made headlines already in 2016. Errani won an unexpected first Premier title in Dubai in February, while Bouchard – twice a finalist this season – has been steadily rising from the awful depths of last year.
Among the American hopes entering the fray are Sloane Stephens and Madison Keys – both of whom truly announced themselves on tour as teenage Australian Open semifinalists. Freshly 23, Stephens has been reviving the form this season that saw her tipped for greatness – and has won her second and third career WTA titles in Auckland and Mexico. Big-hitting Keys, meanwhile, has lost her place in the world's top 20, and endured disappointing results in her 2016 events thus far. Having reached the final in Charleston last year, she will be hoping for a season revival at the same venue.
Other in-form underdogs include Sydney finalist and world no. 67 Monica Puig, Australian Open quarterfinalist Shuai Zhang, Nottingham champion Ana Konjuh and Frenchwoman Caroline Garcia.
Among the top players, Kerber and Venus are two women seeking after their old fire – as the Melbourne champion has failed to replicate her Slam-winning form since, while a Taiwan Open title broke up a poor run of form for recent top 10 player Williams. Both are likely to go deep at a tournament where they have experienced much success.
The Volvo Car Open is live from Charleston, USA, from April 2 – 10, 2016.