Apr 11, 2016

Most of the top men sat out last week. But the WTA was in full swing in Charleston, South Carolina, at the Volvo Car Open.

Sloane Stephens walked away as a surprise winner, beating Aussie Open champ Angelique Kerber in the semifinals.

The No. 21 Stephens had a week to remember, but it’s another American, Bethanie Mattek-Sands, who has been the hottest player on tour.

Peter Bodo@ptbodo: The competitive spirit in Bethanie Mattek-Sands has often been overshadowed by her free spirit, but the ruse may no longer be sustainable. Thanks to a torrid run in March and April with two partners, the woman with the knee socks and hair of many hues is the No. 3-ranked doubles player in the world.

More blue-collar than blue blood, Mattek-Sands is a 31-year-old Minnesotan who served a long apprenticeship before she found a measure of the limelight on the pro tour. She became a respectable singles player, peaking at No. 30 in 2011.

Injuries and surgery interfered with her career, but in recent years she reinvented herself as an elite doubles player mostly in partnership with the Czech Republic’s Lucie Safarova. The team won the Australian and French Opens in 2015, but a bacterial infection knocked Safarova out for the US Open and most of the fall.

The duo did not get back together until after Mattek-Sands won Indian Wells with No. 20 Coco Vandeweghe. Reunited for Miami, Safarova and Mattek-Sands won the title. They claimed the top seeding in Charleston but were beaten in the final by No. 3 seeds Caroline Garcia and Kristina Mladenovic.

With three Americans occupying the 20-23 slots in the rankings, Mattek-Sands probably will wind up representing the U.S. in the Olympic Games in Rio. It would be a fitting reward for a woman who has never let her iconoclastic streak get in the way of her work ethic or her love of the game.

Carl Bialik@CarlBialik: In a quiet week for top-10 players, several tour veterans who’d fallen on hard times lately lifted trophies Sunday.

Juan Monaco, who missed six months starting last August with wrist surgery, hadn’t won a title in three years. But Sunday, he beat defending champion Jack Sock in Houston. Monaco entered the week just 2-4 on the season.

Fellow Argentine Federico Delbonis continued a strong start to the season in which he has 15 match-wins, the last of them coming in the Marrakech final against Borna Coric. Delbonis peaked at No. 34 in 2014, then slumped for nine months in which he went 5-17 at tour level. He is now back to No. 36 and could be seeded at the French Open.

Two former top-11 women won titles. Dominika Cibulkova peaked in 2014 after reaching the Australian Open final, then missed five months last year because of Achilles surgery. She’s back to No. 38 after beating Camila Giorgi in Katowice.

At 23, Sloane Stephens is the youngest of the quartet of titlists. But she was so good, so young, that her drop out of the top 40 last year was a major setback. Three of her four career titles, she has won this year, and she is back up to No. 21 with a victory in Charleston over Elena Vesnina. Stephens’ results have been feast-or-famine lately: the three titles, but four first-match exits in her past seven events.

Rob Bartlett@RobBartlettESPN: Andy Murray says he has banished any fears of playing on clay as he eyes a French Open title.

His chances of landing the Paris title may become clearer this week at the Monte Carlo Masters, but before embarking on that, the world No. 2 was in confident mood.

“Last year was definitely my best year on the clay, and most years I’ve made some small improvements on it,” Murray said before the start of the event. “There’s no reason why I can’t have a good clay-court season.
“I like the surface now. I don’t come into the clay-court season with any fears or worries that I’m going to play badly or I’m not going to be able to move properly.

“Even in the match I lost against Novak [Djokovic], I played well. Then, in the Davis Cup final against [David] Goffin, I did feel like I played some good tennis in that match. It’s the first time I’ve had good wins on clay against the best players and that obviously helps with the belief.”

Last season was Murray’s best on the red surface, as he claimed back-to-back titles in Munich and Madrid, before taking Djokovic to five sets in the semifinals at Roland Garros.

However, he enters the clay season on the back of successive third-round exits at Indian Wells and then Miami, saying at least those defeats have left him fresh. The question now is whether he can recover his form.