World No.1 Ashleigh Barty made a triumphant return to clay Wednesday with a 6-2, 6-1 win against Misaki Doi to reach the round of 16 at the Volvo Car Open.
Barty's previous clay-court match was quite a big one -- the 2019 Roland Garros final, where she defeated Marketa Vondrousova in straight sets to earn her first career Grand Slam title.
Last week's Miami Open champion picked up right where she left off as she moved from the spring hardcourts onto the dirt, dispatching World No.77 Doi with relatively little trouble in just over an hour of play.
"I had to use it as an opportunity to try and build some comfort," Barty said after the win. "I think having a couple days between Miami and playing this first match was important, to have my body rest, but to also try and prepare to change surfaces. It was a very quick turnaround, but I felt great out there tonight.
"I still did hit on clay in the middle of [last] year, to try to keep some consistency in the way the schedule usually would flow."
With her win-loss record for the season now up to 15-2, top seed Barty has matched her result from the only other time she played the Charleston main draw, when she reached the round of 16 in 2018 before losing to Anastasija Sevastova. Barty was also a qualifying loser at the event in 2013.
Against Doi, Barty took the early lead, forcing the issue with fierce forehands as she obtained an early break at 4-2. Overall, the No.1 seed barreled through the opening frame, reeling off the final four games to establish a one-set lead.
Doi quickly broke Barty in the first game of the second set, but that was truly the Aussie's only misstep as she once again went on a game-winning tear.
A series of hot shots, culminating with a stunning forehand crosscourt winner, allowed Barty to break back right away, and she went on to pick off six games in a row. All told, Barty finished the encounter with 23 winners, to Doi's six.
Barty will now face hometown heroine Shelby Rogers, after the Charleston resident overcame No.13 seed Amanda Anisimova, 1-6, 7-5, 6-4 in a late-night all-American clash.
Anisimova held a 6-1, 4-1 lead before being affected by a lower-body injury and taking a medical time-out. Anisimova returned to fight through the rest of the encounter, but it was Rogers who used her powerful play to turn the match around and eke out a victory after two hours and nine minutes of play.
An all-American affair between two former Charleston champions followed Barty's match on Althea Gibson Court, and it was 2016 champion Sloane Stephens who defeated her good friend and 2019 champion Madison Keys, 6-4, 6-4, to book a spot in the sweet sixteen.
In a rematch of the 2017 US Open final, it was Stephens who improved her head-to-head record against No.8 seed Keys to 4-1 after a 92-minute victory filled with engrossing groundstroke rallies.
"I think that I executed my game well," Stephens said, in her post-match press conference. "I served well, better than I have been, and I thought I just stuck with the game plan and just went out there, like, ‘This is what I need to do.’ I stuck with it, and I’m pleased with that."
After an 0-4 start to the season, Stephens has picked up back-to-back wins for the first time in 2021 here in Charleston. Stephens, who beat Keys in that US Open final four years ago, saved all three of the break points she faced en route to the win.
Stephens held multiple break points in three of Keys’ first five service games, and the No.8 seed did well to fend off the first six she encountered. Stephens, though, at last took her chance to move ahead by a break, converting her third break point of the 4-4 game after a Keys backhand flew long.
Serving for the one-set lead, Stephens needed to erase a break point before eventually closing out the frame with a deft lob winner.
Stephens took early control of the second set, breaking for a 2-1 lead. The former World No.3 needed to pull through a lengthy game to retain her advantage at 4-3, but Stephens forced errors with solid shots and serves to keep herself in front.
At 5-4, Keys staved off two match points with powerful forehands, but Stephens made the third time the charm as a backhand by Keys flew long.
Stephens will now take on Ajla Tomljanovic for a spot in the quarterfinals. The American goes into that clash with a 5-0 head-to-head lead over Tomljanovic.