Ashleigh Barty

Ashleigh Barty returns to Bianca Andreescu during the finals at the Miami Open on April 3 in Miami Gardens, Florida. Barty won 6-3, 4-0, as Andreescu retired due to injury. AP photo

The coronavirus pandemic has certainly changed the sports world in the last year. Professional, collegiate and youth sports were suspended for various lengths of times.

And when sports did return, fans were prohibited from attending most events.

However, as most of the sports world tries to adjust to a new normal, tennis has seemed to carry on without missing much of a beat. After all, it is one of a handful of sports in which social distancing is a natural part of the game.

Other than customary handshakes at the end of matches, there’s very little physical contact amongst competitors. Still, when the ATP (Association of Tennis Professionals) and WTA (Women’s Tennis Association) seasons were delayed last year, I was crushed.

Tennis fans shared in my disappointment, but at least we got to salvage the 2020 season with two majors — the U.S. Open and the French Open in August and September, respectively.

But let’s fast forward to 2021 and the here and now.

The Volvo Car Open, which is played on the eye-catching and dare I say luscious green clay in Charleston, South Carolina, is the tournament to watch for the women right now.

The lower level WTA tournament has been home to some of the biggest names in the sport over the years, including Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova and Steffi Graf, all past winners. It isn’t the French Open, but it’s one of the few clay tennis tournaments held in the United States. In so many tournaments the past year or so, I’ve been so impressed with Coco Gauff, the young 17-year-old upstart whom most pundits compare to a younger version of Serena Williams. It feels like we’ve been talking about her for the past two years or so, since she shocked Venus Williams (and the tennis world) as a mid-teen at Wimbledon in 2019.

However, like many before her, it’s so hard to replicate that success at such a young age, against women twice your age and with more experience. The good news is, she still has time. She could very well win the whole thing this week, which would jolt her season.

There’s also Ashleigh Barty, the 24-year-old Australian who we haven’t seen too much of in the last year after she opted out of the 2020 season because of coronavirus safety concerns. She’s been sharp so far this year after that long break and has so much variety in her game.

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Sloane Stephens wipes sweat from her brow before serving to Serena Williams during the third round of the US Open tennis championships on Sept. 5, 2020, in New York.

The drop shots, backhand slices and flat forehand with power, you just never know what she’s going to do. Her serve is probably the weakest part of her game, but on clay, you don’t need a big serve to be successful. On clay, you win points by grinding out your opponent. A big serve and forehand doesn’t do wonders on this surface (if you play like this, just wait until the grass season in July). Barty won the French Open in 2019, the last time the Paris major was played in late May. She definitely is a solid bet to hoist that trophy up again for sure.

For the American women, Sloane Stephens is also playing well this year after some struggles in the last couple of years. She has openly talked about clay being her favorite surface. If the will is there and the fitness is there, watch out. I can remember she gave Simona Halep, the longtime Romanian star, a good run at the finals of the French Open a few years ago, losing a tight three-set match.

But if I had to choose a Volvo Car Open winner, I probably would pick Barty, just because she has momentum in winning the Miami Open last week (also nicknamed the fifth grand slam) and she seems so comfortable on this surface. There’s still Madrid and Rome and other clay court tournaments to go in the next month, so whoever wins this doesn’t mean they are a French Open favorite just yet, but it definitely gives them belief in holding that trophy on the Paris dirt.

Stay tuned, folks. The clay is just starting to get worn.

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