Defending Champ Kerber Survives First-Match Scare

There’s a saying that goes: “The first step is always the hardest.”

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Defending Volvo Car Open champion Angelique Kerber hopes that rings true for her in Charleston this year after the No. 1 seed withstood a spirited challenge from clay courter Lara Arruabarrena 6-2, 5-7, 7-6(3) in over two and a half hours.

“Lara played an unbelievable match,” the world No. 2 said. “It was such a special feeling for me to come back to this place. I hope I can win a few more matches here.”

So do the Charleston tennis fans, who stayed through the Kerber victory, making the German feel comfortable once again in the place where she found so much success at in 2015.

“The crowd was just amazing,” Kerber said after the win. “Playing in front of these guys here is just feeling like home. It’s a really special feeling and it’s really great to be back.”

Kerber is through to the third round, as is Mirjana Lucic-Baroni, who had her own barnbunrer finish over No. 11 seed Kristina Mladenovic 4-6, 6-4, 7-6(13). Another former champion in Sam Stosur had an easier time of things, beating Aleksandra Krunic 6-4, 6-4 in the second match inside Volvo Car Stadium.

American Bethanie Mattek-Sands came back from a set and 1-3 down against Brazilian Teliana Pereira, winning 5-7, 6-3, 6-2. Mattek-Sands has also teamed up with Lucie Safarova in doubles, and they’re the top seeds.

2014 semifinalist Genie Bouchard also found success in straight sets over Alexandra Dulgheru, 6-3, 6-4. A year ago Bouchard came here as the top seed and was upset in her opening match. This year the Canadian believes she has found her game again.

“I feel like I’m back,” Bouchard said of her play, having made two WTA finals this year already. “I just have to kind of work my way back up again. It’s a challenge, you know, and I’m completely up to the challenge. I’m positive about it. I’m trying to look forward.”

It was forward movement Tuesday for Monica Puig, Louisa Chirico, Daria Kasatkina, Zhang Shuai, Yaroslava Shvedova and Yulia Putintseva, who all won first round encounters.

Kasatkina is a dangerous one to watch, the 18 year old, seeded 14th here, won her 100th professional match on Tuesday, at the WTA and ITF levels. Told that news on court by emcee Andrew Krasny, the Russian’s eyes widened in surprise.

Chirico won a battle of youngsters against Naomi Osaka, while Puig made two-set work in her win over Lucie Hradecka, a semifinalist here a year ago. Puig, the Puerto Rican, is yet to lose a first round match on tour this year. She was a finalist in Sydney in January, her best result at the WTA Premier level.

Madison Keys and Sloane Stephens drew a packed house on Court 3 for their doubles match, though the Americans came up short against doubles specialists Gabriela Dabrowski and Darija Jurak, 6-2, 6-3.

Kerber, who won the Australian Open in January for her first career Grand Slam victory, could take solace in the fact that she was playing just her first match on the clay this season. For Arruabarrena, it was her seventh.

Mattek-Sands also credited the boisterous Charleston crowd for helping push her over the finish line. She next meets Irina Camelia-Begu, a quarterfinalist here last year, in the second round.

Stosur, meanwhile, gets Jana Cepelova in round two, the surprise 2014 finalist in the Lowcountry.

And while Kerber’s match was the most-watched of the day, Lucic-Baroni gets a hat tip for hers: She saved a handful of match points in the 28-point third set tiebreak against Mladenovic, earning a much-deserved day off on Wednesday.