COCO’S CRISP: GAUFF VICTORIOUS IN VOLVO CAR OPEN DEBUT

COCO’S CRISP: GAUFF VICTORIOUS IN VOLVO CAR OPEN DEBUT

AT HOME ON CHARLESTON CLAY, ROGERS BOOKS ROUND 2; UVA’S NAVARRO FOLLOWS SUIT, GRABBING FIRST WTA MAIN-DRAW WIN

Even in a mostly empty stadium you could feel the buzz. That’s just the kind of hype that follows Coco Gauff wherever she goes these days; a teen wunderkind whose full-package persona ventures far beyond the tennis court.

Gauff, 17, made her debut on the green clay of Charleston, though she was well versed on the surface having grown up playing on it in Delray Beach, Fla. And it showed on Tuesday night at the Volvo Car Open, where the 36th-ranked superstar defeated Bulgaria’s Tsvetana Pironkova, 6-3, 6-0.

Pironkova returned to the tour in 2020 after a three-year hiatus, reaching the quarterfinals of the US Open. But she couldn’t overcome the 14th seed on Tuesday. Despite six first-set double faults, Gauff advanced to the second round, where she’ll face Russia’s Liudmilla Samsonova.

“It definitely means a lot,” said Gauff. “I played pretty well. When it got close in the first set, I was able to control the points and find my calmness and pull through. Pretty much all of my double faults were pretty good misses long. Those are the misses that I want. My serve is constantly evolving.”

Emma Navarro isn’t the first University of Virginia standout to test her mettle on the pro tour. Danielle Collins, Brian Vahaly and Somdev Devvarman come to mind. Jarmere Jenkins, too. But not many have had the opportunity to play a tour-level event in their own hometown.

The Charleston native, who closed 2019 as the No. 3 junior in the world, took full advantage of her opportunity on Tuesday at the LTP Daniel Island Tennis Center. The 19-year-old Cavalier ousted Mexico’s Renata Zarzua, 6-4, 6-3, for the first WTA main-draw win of her young career.

“It’s amazing,” said Navarro, a Roland Garros girls’ singles finalist in 2019. “It’s really special in my hometown.”

Another Charleston resident, Shelby Rogers, sure looked at home on Althea Gibson Club Court, where the 28-year-old overpowered Frenchwoman Kristina Mladenovic, 6-4, 6-3. Rogers, a former Volvo Car Open ballgirl, took advantage of 13 double faults from her opponent in leveling their career head-to-head at 2-all.

“I’m really happy with the win,” said Rogers, who’ll next face fellow American Amanda Anisimova. “She’s a really tricky player, especially on clay. She’s very comfortable on this surface. I’m really happy to get through that one, especially here in Charleston. Not everyone gets such a fortunate event in their hometown — an amazing one at that, a player-favorite.”

“She was fighting really hard and raised her level at the end of both sets, so I’m just happy to get out of here in two sets,” added the 52nd-ranked Rogers, a quarterfinalist at this WTA 500 event in 2017.

Sloane Stephens, the 2016 Volvo Car Open champion, dispatched lucky loser Xinyu Wang of China, 6-2, 6-4. The victory ensured a highly anticipated second-round matchup with her longtime pal and defending champion Madison Keys in a rematch of the 2017 US Open final.

“Just trying to get my season going,” said Stephens, who is making her eighth appearance at the Volvo Car Open. “I love Charleston. I love playing here. I have amazing memories here, so it’s really nice to be able to get this one.”

“I just stuck to my game plan. I just tried to play as much ‘Sloane tennis’ as possible and not focus on the other side of the court.”

Teen sensation Leylah Fernandez of Canada, a first-time WTA titlist last month in Monterrey, Mexico, handed 16th seed Shuai Zhang of China a 6-3, 6-1 upset defeat. The 18-year-old, No. 72 in the rankings, is quickly growing accustomed to life on the tour. She says being around the likes of the top-ranked Ashleigh Barty, four-time Slam champ Naomi Osaka and former No. 1 Simona Halep brings with it some serious insight.

“Every game, there’s always that same intensity, there’s always that same look,” said Fernandez. “I try to replicate that, saying that every game, every match is a new day. It’s not going to be easy. I see how much effort, how much professionalism they are putting into their craft. I’m still learning, still young on the tour. I’m trying to be more like them on the professional side.”

Fernandez may be a Top-100 newbie, but she’s as driven as they come.

“It’s mostly my family, my aunts, my uncles, they say I’ve got time. But right now, I’m just thinking of the moment. Right now, I don’t have time. Time is always against us. I try to make the most out of it.”

Garbiñe Muguruza was downright dominant in her 6-1, 6-3 dismissal of Poland’s Magdalena Frech, a 70-minute brushoff in which the Spaniard won 83 percent (20 of 24) first-serve points.

“I’m very excited to play on clay courts. It’s my favorite surface,” said Muguruza, who collected her tour-leading 21st match win of 2021. “It was my first match of the season on clay. It’s always tough to get the rhythm, but I was just happy that I started well. In the second set, the match was tougher. I think she started to play much better. I was expecting a battle.”

What worked best for the 2016 Roland Garros champ on Tuesday?

“My fighting spirit,” said Muguruza, who is coached by fellow Spaniard and two-time Volvo Car Open champion Conchita Martinez (1994-95). “I still had to get the shots, get the feeling on the clay court. I was concentrating on fighting for every ball, running if I had to, just fighting.”

One of three Czech women in the draw, wildcard recipient Petra Kvitova notched her first-ever win on the Charleston clay, a 7-6(4), 6-2 decision over qualifier Storm Sanders of Australia. The southpaw Kvitova, the No. 3 seed, got a taste of what it’s like to play against a lefthander, though she never faced a break point.

“It was my first match on clay. I had a little bit of preparation on it, but for me the beginning of the clay-court season is always a little bit tougher mentally and physically, as well,” said Kvitova, a titlist at the WTA 500 hard-court event in Doha last month. “I’m really glad that today I made it in a tiebreak. That’s always tricky. I know Storm already played a few matches on it, so I think she had a little bit of an advantage. But I’m glad I was able to find a way in the first set. I think it was getting used to her lefty serve. Now I see how tough it is.”

No. 12 seed Ons Jabeur of Tunisia was a 6-2, 6-2 winner over 2020 Roland Garros quarterfinalist Martina Trevisan, while 19-year-old American Hailey Baptiste scored an impressive 6-3, 6-3 win over countrywoman Caroline Dolehide. No. 11 seed Yulia Putintseva prevailed in a Kazakhstani head-to-head with Billie Jean King Cup teammate Zarina Diyas, 6-2, 6-2.

Others moving on on Tuesday were: Anastasija Sevastova (def. Anastasia Potapova, 6-3, 6-3), Danka Kovinic (def. Gabriela Talaba, 7-6(2), 6-4) and Liudmila Samsonova (def. Nao Hibino, 6-2, 6-1).

CORI GAUFF Shelby Rogers Sloane Stephens