Welcome to Clay Chronicles, where wtatennis.com will take a look back at some of the most memorable matches from the clay seasons of the past five years. Up next from Charleston is Sloane Stephens' thrilling quarterfinal victory over Daria Kasatkina in 2016, in which the American saved a match point on the way to the title.
2015: Angelique Kerber def. Madison Keys, final
HOW THEY GOT THERE: The quarterfinal match between No.7 seed Sloane Stephens and No.14 seed Daria Kasatkina at the Volvo Car Open was a matchup between a player in a resurgence, and another on the rise.
Riding high early on in 2016, Stephens had already claimed two titles - in Auckland and Acapluco - in the season's first three months. Having dipped outside seeded position at Grand Slams and as low as World No.45 in 2015, Stephens' early-season surge saw her come to Charleston ranked World No.22.
The American, who won her first WTA title on U.S. soil the prior summer in Washington, D.C. had been 1-5 in her career in the main draw in Charleston before arriving at the 2016 tournament. Nonetheless, she took her momentum into South Carolina after a first-round bye by beating Danka Kovinic and Daria Gavrilova without the loss of a set to reach the last eight.
Kasatkina, long at home on clay as a former French Open junior champion, was in the midst of a teenage dream to start her season, scoring her first Top 10 victory against Venus Williams in Auckland; reaching the third round of the Australian Open on debut; and making the semifinals in St. Petersburg and the quarterfinals in her first Premier Mandatory event in Indian Wells.
Making her tournament debut as the youngest player in the field, the Russian lost just nine games in her first three matches on Charleston's green clay, beating Zheng Saisai, Ana Konjuh and Louisa Chirico to set up a first-ever meeting with Stephens.
WHAT HAPPENED: The American raced out of the gates and won the first set in under a half hour. Kasatkina never held serve in the opener, landing just 47% of her first serves, while Stephens excelled.
Broken just once, the American landed 71% of her first serves and won the last four games to wrap up the early lead.
In the second set, however, Kasatkina might've been pushed on serve, but was never broken. The teenager saved seven break points in the middle set, beginning with one in the opening game, before turning aside five in a crucial seventh game.
Kasatkina dug out of a 0-40 hole, and saved two further break point chances, to keep her lead at 4-3, and neither woman lost serve until Stephens stepped to the line in the final game.
Having not had a break point for the entire 68-minute set, the No.14 seed ultimately had three chances on Stephens' serve in the game, and sent the match to a decider.
In the final set, Stephens was the first to break, and moved ahead 3-2 in the set's middle stages. Kasatkina nonetheless rebounded, breaking back to level at 3-3, and kept her lead in the ensuing games. The No.14 seed saved two break points at 4-4, and earned herself a match point returning in the next game at 30-40.
Nonetheless, the American found her best level when it mattered the most - and not only saved match point, but streaked through to the victory.
The No.7 seed won the last 10 points, breaking and holding to love, to ultimately seal her spot in the semifinals, 6-1, 5-7, 7-5.
WHAT THEY SAID: At the conclusion of the nearly two-and-a-half hour clash, Stephens told reporters that there was little to separate the two players - but that she was able to find another gear in the last three games.
"I was just playing, fighting the whole time, and I played some really solid games," Stephens said.
"She was just playing her game. She was being aggressive. She was trying to control the court. She hits a lot of balls back. I mean she's a great player, so I think she was doing obviously what her coach probably told her to do and it was a tough match.
"I knew what I had to do. I needed to step inside the court and be a little more aggressive and I think I started doing that towards the end of the second set. When it came down to it, I was able to just kind of hit my way through."
The dramatic victory earned Stephens a third straight win in Charleston, something she had never before accomplished: after winning two matches to qualify in 2011, she lost in the first round.
"At the beginning of the week I was like, 'Oh, my God. I don't know what's going to happen.' I was really nervous, because obviously coming into here I haven't done well here," she said. "So I think I had more anxiety and nervousness about just being here.
"It just gives me confidence even for next year to be able to come back and know that I've won three matches here in a row and been able to get my footing. And just have some good on-court experiences here. I think that's really important."
WHAT IT MEANT: Stephens went on to beat top seed and reigning Australian Open champion Angelique Kerber, via retirement, in the semifinals, and qualifier Elena Vesnina, in the latter's second career appearance in the Charleston final, to win her third and final title of 2016.
Just three months later, the American was forced to end her season early, revealing her struggles with a foot injury after a first-round loss at the Rio Olympics to Eugenie Bouchard.
After undergoing surgery, Stephens would ultimately be off the tour for almost a full year: she returned in July at Wimbledon ranked World No.336, and after having fallen to World No.957 by August, famously went on to win the US Open at the end of 2017 in a triumphant return.
Kasatkina's successful tournament debut in Charleston was a sign of things to come for her at the tournament: just 12 months later, at age 19, the Russian won her first WTA singles title at the event, beating Jelena Ostapenko in the first tour-level final between two teenagers since Yanina Wickmayer defeated Petra Kvitova at Linz in 2009.