Spring Means Soft Courts in Tennis

By Jane Voigt

Soft-court tennis is like spring, a birth or rebirth of tennis play on new grounds. The court surface is no longer blue or purple, but red or green, as is the case here at the Credit One Charleston Open. The materials that make up these soft courts, which literally move as players move, require the women to adjust their games and, as well, their mindsets. 

Ninth-seeded Madison Keys revved up her soft-court game Tuesday, defeating hometown favorite Emma Navarro, 6-4, 6-3. The up-and-coming American (highest career ranking is 122) appeared here for the fourth time, her best record being in 2021 when she advanced to the second round. Ben Navarro, Emma’s father, owns Charleston Tennis LLC, which, in turn, owns the Credit One Charleston Open. Last August the billionaire entrepreneur and philanthropist added another tournament to his portfolio: the Western & Southern Open, a joint men’s and women’s event on the ATP and WTA Tours. 

No matter the family ties, Navarro, unlike Keys — who struggled on clay for years — grew up here on the surface, practicing and learning the finesse necessary to navigate green clay. She smiled when asked about her experience on Tuesday. 

“I prefer playing on clay,” she began. “I like to be more creative and play longer points. I didn’t get as many opportunities to do that today as I would like to. But, I’m happy to be back on clay.”

Keys noticed Navarro’s comfort level on the surface, saying, “I think she has a great game for clay. She makes people hit that one extra shot. In tight moments that makes a lot of people uncomfortable.”

The problems Navarro experienced started in the first game when Keys “came out playing really aggressively.” Navarro cited “some nerves” and the fact that playing “for Charleston” in front of people “I see on a daily basis” hampered her early-match momentum. Nonetheless she said she was “happy with my performance” and was later able to “find my rhythm … and work my way back into the match a little bit.”

Keys, too, said nerves initially effected her, but that getting off to a good start helped. “Starting off on a good foot is really important normally, but especially when you’re playing someone young and someone in front of a home crowd,” she said. 

Keys’ success at this tournament expands beyond the title she won in 2019. She has advanced to the quarterfinals (2014), the semifinals (2018), and was a finalist in 2015, losing to Angelique Kerber. Combining all these experiences makes Keys more comfortable here and pumps up her confidence. 

Additionally, Keys’ game has matured on clay. She better accepts the qualities of the surface, which helps her manage its particularities and challenges.

“Learning how to actually embrace the surface with my game style versus fighting it and trying to make the clay work for me has been a big difference,” Keys explained on Monday during Media Day interviews. “I’ve definitely started to feel more and more comfortable on it and I think my results have shown [that].”

That plan seemed to work on Tuesday. “I think I was really trying not to change things to quickly or go for things that weren’t there and really work the point, to try to get to the net and really just kind of extend points when necessary.” Keys added that “Because Emma defends so well I just knew it was probably going to take an extra ball or two before I could put the ball away.”

Preparing for spring soft courts is a priority for these women. For Keys and her team, that process has become “pretty routine,” with Keys explaining the process: “We start focusing on my strength, like my ankles and adductors, because you’re not on a stable surface anymore.” 

She doesn’t believe that there are clay-court specialists anymore, either, but Keys did mention that some players prefer one surface over another. “I think everyone is really really good and good enough to figure out how to make a surface fit their game style. So, I could say now that pretty much everyone’s good on every surface.”

Keys was happy with her first-round match on Tuesday, saying, “I thought for the most part it was a pretty clean match and played the way that I wanted to play.”

But overall, deep down, is she okay with this surface, knowing that hardball tennis is a mainstay of her game? “I’m just going to say it’s clay.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: