CHARLESTON, S.C. — You could feel Amanda Anisimova’s confidence surging as she won the last 10 games of her first-round match with Alize Cornet. Afterward, the sheer joy in her eyes was impossible to miss.

“I love playing on clay,” she told the crowd at the Credit One Charleston Open. “But you know what — I like playing in front of an amazing crowd like this.

“That’s why I play. I’m just really happy to be back.”

It was another poignant example of the healing power of clay.

Anisimova is back, after nearly nine months away from the game. Citing burnout, she played her last match of 2023 in Madrid, losing her fourth straight. She returned in January, in Auckland, New Zealand and, a few weeks later, after a third-round win over Paula Badosa, advanced to the Australian Open Round of 16. She lost there to World No.2 Aryna Sabalenka but found a little something of the 17-year-old player who reached the semifinals at Roland Garros.

Anisimova, now 22, resurfaced here in Charleston on Monday ranked No. 264 among Hologic WTA Tour players. On Tuesday (6 p.m. ET), she’ll face the top-seeded Jessica Pegula.

Many players dread the transition from the hard courts of the Sunshine Double to the spring clay-court season. The cloying clay blunts their power, demands patience and a whole different set of mechanics and strategies. But for Anisimova, Elina Svitolina and Ons Jabeur — who both play their first matches here Wednesday — the return to clay is a soothing, welcome change.

After Svitolina took a year off to give birth to daughter Skai, she chose to begin her return in Charleston in 2023. She lost her first match back 7-6 (3), 2-6, 6-4 to Yulia Putintseva.

“I had a tough first-round match, but it was important to understand where I was physically and to keep going with my comeback,” Svitolina, 29, told reporters Monday.

That comeback was one of the memorable storylines of 2023. Svitolina played a pair of ITF events and after losing her first match in Rome — where she was a two-time champion — she took the title in Strasbourg and reached the quarterfinals at Roland Garros. And then at Wimbledon, Svitolina outdid herself, beating World No.1 Iga Swiatek in the quarterfinals before losing to eventual champion Marketa Vondrousova in the semifinals.

And it all started on clay.

A year ago, no one was better here than Jabeur. She didn’t drop a set on her way to the title, defeating No.8 Daria Kasatkina in the semifinals and No.11 Belinda Bencic in the final. She went on to reach the quarterfinals at Roland Garros and the final at Wimbledon.

So far, this year has been something completely different. It’s all hinged on her chronically cranky right knee. Jabeur has won only two matches in three months, losing her first match in the last three events.

Jabeur is hoping the change of scenery will restore her game — and spirit.

“To come back to Charleston feels great,” Jabeur said Monday. “The clay, the people, the energy… I hope I can put the past few months behind me and start a good season here.”

Jabeur was quick to point out that the soft green clay will be much easier on her inflamed knee ligaments.

Does last year’s title create more expectations?

“Oh, man, I hate expectations,” Jabeur said, drawing laughter from the assembled media. “I am with my red pen doing this [crossing out] to expectations. In the end, it’s disappointing a lot of times. And that’s what I’ve been feeling a lot lately.

“So, I’m really looking forward to winning my first match on clay here. I haven’t won a lot of matches lately in the season. Most important thing for me is to really enjoy my game and try to play as free as I can.”

No one looked more free, more fluid, than Anisimova in that first-round match. Cornet, down 5-0 in the second set, actually had a game point when Anisimova made a ludicrously difficult shot. After tracking down a dropshot, she quickly reversed direction when Cornet threw up a lob. Anisimova elevated and hit a spectacular, improvised Skyhook backhand overhead that can’t be taught.

She was still laughing as she tried to collect herself on the baseline.

“Since I walked out, you guys were cheering me on,” Anisimova said in her on-court interview. “That’s my favorite thing.”

So is the return to the comfort of clay.

They’ll charge you a bundle here in this charming southern city for a mud treatment in any number of spas. At its essence, it’s therapy by clay. The same is true at the Charleston Open, where the top players are thrilled to be back on the dirt — even if it’s green.

Source: https://www.wtatennis.com/news/3949376/therapeutic-touch-of-clay-a-welcome-change-of-surface-for-some-players

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