In Charleston, Keys & Mattek-Sands captain a doubles-heavy WTA reunion

In Charleston, Keys & Mattek-Sands captain a doubles-heavy WTA reunion

On Monday, the two opposing Americans will draft players for the 16-player Credit One Bank Invitational, a Laver Cup-like event that marks a return to competition for some of the WTA's top players, including Aussie Open champion Sofia Kenin.

Madison Keys didn’t have the opportunity to defend her Volvo Car Open crown in April, but in honor of being the current Charleston champion, she was granted the first power move for next week’s Credit One Bank Invitational. As one of two team captains for the 16-player women’s event, held in the same venue as the WTA tournament, Keys called tails in Thursday’s official coin flip.

It instead landed heads, shifting control to Bethanie Mattek-Sands, who will get to make the first selection in Monday’s player draft. The team event, which begins Tuesday, will feature singles and doubles matches in a format that scales its point value up as the competition moves along, much like the Laver Cup. On the final two days, each victory will be worth three points, but five of the eight matches, including all four on Sunday, will be doubles.

The format forced both captains to strongly consider the breadth of doubles experience for every player on the draft board.

“That’s been one of the hardest things that I’ve been thinking about,” Keys said Thursday in a Zoom press conference. “Who is not only great at singles but also has doubles experience, and what kind of players play well together. It’s not just a straightforward, these-players-are-great-at-singles and I’m going to pick them. The doubles points at the end are so important, you really have to get people who pair well together.”

Mattek-Sands owns nine Grand Slam titles across doubles and mixed doubles. With the first pick in hand, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see her select Sofia Kenin—for more than her 2020 Australian Open champion status. Kenin teamed with Mattek-Sands to claim last year’s China Open in Beijing, and the two joined forces to win a deciding doubles rubber for the U.S. over Latvia in February’s Fed Cup Finals qualifier.  

“I’m not going to give away anything,” Mattek-Sands said. “Here’s the thing, if I give away what I want, Madi is going to use it against me.

“For the most part, I think the doubles matches will be really interesting because you’re seeing a lot of partnerships that are their first time on the court. I think it will create some good drama. We’re all gamers, this is what we train for. We’ve been training and practicing for months now. It’s time to get this competitiveness out.”

With the WTA announcing its revised schedule for the rest of the 2020 season on Wednesday, and the USTA confirming the US Open would move forward in New York, both players spoke about the mental importance of finally having a timeline and set of goals to prepare for. Keys hasn’t played a match since the Australian Open and believes the extended layoff has forced all players to fully appreciate every aspect the COVID-19 pandemic has taken away from their lives as professional athletes.

“I think the majority of players probably halfway through the year, we’re all kind of thinking, ‘I would love some weeks at home. I’ve been on the road for some long. Those pressure moments in matches are so stressful.’” said Keys. “And now we’re all like, ‘please put me on Centre Court, break point down in the third, because I would love to have that feeling again.”

“I think we all really take for granted how much we’re competing. Even those days you lose, you get to go out, compete and get to play a sport that you love. I don’t think we’re ever going to forget that. We’re not only going to love to getting to compete again—and know there are fans at home who are so excited to get to watch us play again—but knowing in the future, we’re going to be able to be back in those big, packed stadiums, I don’t think any of us are ever going to complain about the stresses of playing tennis quite as much.”

For Mattek-Sands, the 35-year-old is thrilled that players can ramp up their match play ahead of the tour’s restart at one-off events like the Credit One Bank Invitational. All 16 players will need to rely on each other for support and engagement, as fans will not be present in the stands.

A lively personality herself, Mattek-Sands is approaching each of her future teammates as stand-ins for the absent crowd.

“Personally, I think it’s going to be all about that team energy, cheering our friends, teammates and being there for them,” she said. “You could maybe not come out on fire that first day, but it’s all about maintaining that energy. Going into the weekend is where you have those big points. If I’m going by what’s helped me winning in doubles, Fed Cup ties, it’s about that energy. I think that’s what’s going to be the challenge here.”

Mattek-Sands and Keys were not short on dynamism during the press conference. Keys mentioned a possible plan of watching some of her fellow captain’s past doubles matches for inspiration, before Mattek Sands jumped in to stop the 25-year-old from downplaying her own abilities.

“Hey, we played doubles in Rome that one time. I thought we were actually pretty good,” said Mattek Sands.

I had one great volley. They overruled it, and then they corrected it. And it really just went downhill for me after that,” reflected Keys.

“Do you remember how far you got in that event?,” asked moderator Steve Weissman.

We lost first round,” said Mattek-Sands, as she let out a laugh. “We had a blast.”

The two won’t be on the same side of the net come next week, though Mattek-Sands assured everyone the two would unite at some point.

“That was our first time playing, and only time. So we need to give it a second chance.”

Mattek-Sands and Keys will select from a pool that includes former major singles champions Victoria Azarenka, Sloane Stephens and Kenin; 2016 Olympic gold medalist Monica Puig, Canadians Eugenie Bouchard and Leylah Fernandez; Australia’s Ajla Tomljanovic; and a contingent of Americans: Amanda Anisimova, Jennifer Brady, Danielle Collins, Caroline Dolehide, Emma Navarro, Alison Riske and Shelby Rogers.