Meet the pros: WTA players share their stories in Charleston

Jane Voigt, Tennis With An Accent

Getting to know the top women’s tennis players at any tournament is a treat. Getting a closer look at the top pros’ journey with the sport – and a fuller view of their individual games — satisfies fans. Close followers of the sport know the strokes, strategies and tactics of tennis as well as the players do. However, do fans know what Netflix series the players watch? What endears these elite athletes to Charleston and other tour stops? What about the charities tennis players promote when not batting around tennis balls? There is always something new to learn and discover about the women of the WTA Tour.

On Monday, the first day of the main draw at this 51-year-old women’s clay-court tennis tournament, five seeded players gathered to answer various kinds of questions, some of which focused on charitable ventures and helping others.

Elina Svitolina, who returns to tennis in Charleston after a year away – following the birth of her daughter, Skai, with husband and tennis pro Gaels Monfils — kicked off her return Friday night by partnering with the Charleston Open and WTA Charities to host a special Tennis Plays for Peace Pro-Am that benefited Ukraine and the Elina Svitolina Foundation.

Shelby Rogers, who grew up in Mount Pleasant just over the Cooper River from Charleston, and who wants to help young tennis players, was blissful today about her recent engagement to John Slavik, an American ice hockey player. The couple has been together since 2020, but their lives shifted Friday night on their way to local restaurant. 

“I did have a little hunch that something was going down because my boyfriend… wait, my fiance,” Shelby began, “was very excited about coming to Charleston, working remotely and making some sacrifices to be here and spend time with my family. He was acting weird, like super quiet.”

When their car went in the opposite direction of the restaurant, she knew. “We went downtown to the Battery. He picked the perfect alleyway.” John got down on bended knee and Shelby cried. “It was a very special moment for both of us.”

Rogers’ inherent sense of helping others by using her platform as a professional tennis player is rooted in her Christian faith.

“Stay tuned… there might be some announcements coming,” Shelby said, hinting at a plan. “I believe that having a platform like we do is super important to use that. For me, it’s my Christian faith that is important to me. I try to advocate for that a little bit.”

Animals and animal rescues are also special to her, plus getting people involved in tennis.

Since her fiancé has a rescue dog, “I try to push ‘Adopt Don’t Shop’.” For tennis, she works alongside several organizations in the area to help kids get into the game. “Tennis can sometimes be a sport that is too expensive or too exclusive, so providing opportunities for kids to play is important.”

Paula Badosa, the No. 12 seed this year in Charleston, lost to defending champion Belinda Bencic last year in the quarterfinals. The year that followed was an up-and-down affair, as she struggled with her game and with injuries.

“Of course I’ve had to deal with a lot of things this year, which has been tough for me,” she began. “I’ve had to deal with a lot of injuries, but I feel I’m a more mature player. I’m enjoying the journey; and, I hope that things begin to go my way. I believe that time will come.”

Badosa would like to start a foundation. “I don’t have one now, but it is something I am working on with my team because I want to do one in my country [Spain],” she said. “I want to help little girls that don’t have the facilities to start to play tennis. To help them raise money and perhaps have to opportunity to play tennis, like I have.”

Like Badosa, Ons Jabeur, the No. 2 seed this week, has had a goal to start her own foundation for the last two years. “Sometimes I don’t like to talk about it very much because it is very personal, so I’m doing small things for now,” she began. “First, I want to help my country Tunisia and bring more facilities there for sport. I believe that sports will help the kids stay away from violence and drugs.”

Jabeur plans to start small, but dreams of expanding the work of her foundation to the whole African continent. “That would be really amazing,” she said. She also envisions other successful people, “not only from tennis,” who “dream to be doctors or engineers” using the foundation for a platform to success.

Madison Keys pencils Charleston into her schedule every year since first playing here in 2013 at age 18. Back then, the green clay, which is a bit faster than European red clay, was not her favorite surface. She was an American hard-court hitter with a power game to match her attitude. Yet, that attitude has shifted on green clay. Keys now says she’s “trying to work with the surface rather than fighting it.” That breakthrough in thinking could have begun in 2019 when she won the title, her first-ever clay court title. “It truly is my favorite spot every year,” Madison said with a smile.

Keys, the No. 9 seed this week, began her foundation – Kindness Wins – in 2020. Last summer she began raising money “to help resurface some public courts.” Since this tournament is so special to Keys, renovating courts in North Charleston was a “fit” for her foundation. On Monday afternoon she traveled there to see those courts. “I wanted courts to be more accessible to people, which is a priority for me,” she explained when asked why the project was important to her. “Anywhere I can help make tennis more accessible to people means a lot to me.”

Defending Charleston champion Belinda Bencic, whose image appears on larger-than-life billboards around town, didn’t hesitate when asked how she works to contribute to the greater good. “For me it’s with dogs and helping dogs and dog shelters” she said. She got her first shelter dog during COVID, but “we went there [to the shelter] to help and to walk dogs.” She thought she couldn’t have a dog, but one special one found her. Her name is Paola. Looking past her tennis career, she would like to expand her love of dogs and “Maybe even to have my own dog shelter to help save stray dogs.”

One thing’s for sure, in addition to their heartfelt and well-meaning charity goals: These women stand as one with their love for this tournament and Charleston. Bencic, who has been a main draw participant for almost 10 years said, “It feels cozy.” Perhaps Paula Badosa said it best: “They do it [the tournament] with so much passion and love; it is a little bit like home.”

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