CHARLESTON CHOOSE: WHO’LL CAPITALIZE AT CHARLESTON OPEN?

CHARLESTON CHOOSE: WHO’LL CAPITALIZE AT CHARLESTON OPEN?

WITH TOP SEEDS GONE, SEMIFINALISTS IN HUNT FOR FIRST WTA TITLE

The Final Four was in full swing some 726 miles away in Indianapolis, with Little Engine That Could Gonzaga vying for its first national championship. (It wasn’t to be.) But the real bracket-busting was going on down in Charleston, where by Friday each of the Top 10 seeds had been summarily dismissed, World No. 1 Ashleigh Barty included.

As we head into the home stretch, four players remain standing, none of whom would have been penciled in as an odds-on favorite when this green-clay showdown got underway. Meet your 2021 Charleston Open semifinalists, all of whom are chasing their first WTA Tour title. Who will capitalize on this big-stage opportunity?

Danka Kovinic vs. [12] Ons Jabeur

 Paula Badosa vs. [15] Veronika Kudermetova

ONS JABEUR | TUNISIA

Age: 26

WTA Ranking: 28

  • The crafty, dropshot-happy Tunisian has become both a player- and fan-favorite since becoming the first Arab woman to reach the third round of a major at Roland Garros in 2019. “She’s not an easy player to play,” observed Coco Gauff, a 6-3, 6-3 victim at the hands of Jabeur in the quarterfinals. “She has a lot of variety. Good serve, good strokes and a really good dropshot and slice game — we all know how good she is at that.” She may be unpredictable, but there is one thing you can count on with Jabeur, a quarterfinalist at the Australian Open in 2020: She will pressure your serve like few others on the tour. She has won a tournament-leading 55 percent of return points this week, and registered 10 breaks of serve in coming back from a set down and defeat Frenchwoman Alizé Cornet, 5-7, 6-3, 6-3, in the Round of 16.

DANKA KOVINIC | MONTENEGRO

Age: 26

WTA Ranking: 91

  • With a penchant for fast cars, Kovinic has raced into the biggest semifinal of her career this week at the LTP Daniel Island Tennis Center. The first Montenegrin, man or woman, to reach the second round of a Grand Slam, the 26-year-old upset World No. 11 Petra Kvitova in the third round, having come within two points of beating the Czech in both their previous matches. Kovinic says she pivoted during the pandemic-paused 2020 season, using the shutdown as an opportunity to retool and refocus. “Somehow, I changed my mindset on the court, where I really believe that I can beat the good players, maybe the best in our sport. This step forward in my game is showing.” This outlook should benefit her against the 28th-ranked Jabeur, against whom she’s 0-1, their only previous encounter coming on clay in the second round of an ITF event in Budapest in 2018.

PAULA BADOSA | SPAIN

Age: 23

WTA Ranking: 71

  • As World No. 1 Ashleigh Barty can attest, Badosa can bring it from the baseline, a solid performer who this week has shown plenty of consistency from the service stripe, too. She comes into the semis with a tournament-best 24 aces on the week, seven of which came in her 6-4, 6-3 dismissal of the top-seeded Barty on Friday night — the biggest win of her career. The girls’ singles titlist at Roland Garros in 2015, the New York-born Badosa appears to be plenty comfortable on the green clay of Charleston. After a rough start to 2021 (she was the only player to test positive for COVID-19 in Melbourne and was forced into ‘hard’ quarantine), a trip to the Volvo Car Open final would do wonders to reset her year. “She’s a great player, a quality opponent,” said Barty.

VERONIKA KUDERMETOVA | RUSSIA

Age: 23

WTA Ranking: 38

• The daughter of a former Russian ice hockey champion has all but skated her way into the semis in Charleston. The 23-year-old has yet to drop a set through four matches, her most impressive showing coming against 2016 champ Sloane Stephens in the quarterfinals (6-3, 6-4). Like her semifinal foe, she can pick her spots with her serve. Kudermetova has smacked 20 aces this week, taking her season total to 119. On paper, she’ll come into the match as the favorite, having defeated Badosa en route to maiden WTA final earlier this year in Abu Dhabi, where she also took down fifth-ranked Elina Svitolina. But she says she’s wiping the slate clean for Saturday’s semi: “She’s a good fighter. Tomorrow, it will be a new Paula, a new me. I think we both try to play aggressive, and tomorrow we will see who can keep that in hand and really focus on the match.”

Ons Jabeur