At every tournament, it seemed, the assembled media had the same question for Shelby Rogers.
“Shelby,” the reporters asked, “is this the biggest win of your career?”
The question was only natural, given the summer that the Mount Pleasant native put in last year on the WTA Tour. The 22-year-old pro chalked up victories over top-20 players Carla Suarez Navarro and Sara Errani while making the finals in Bad Gastein, Germany; followed that up with a win over No. 21 Alize Cornet in Washington, D.C.; and topped off the remarkable run with a three-set win over No. 8 Eugenie Bouchard in Montreal.
That stretch — call it the “Summer of Shelby” — pushed Rogers’ ranking from No. 123 to No. 72 and helped her into the WTA Rising Stars Invitational in Singapore at the end of the year. It also helped her come up with an answer to that question.
“After a while, I was like, ‘Let’s see what this week has in store,’ ” Rogers said.
Last summer also catapulted Rogers into a whole new world on the WTA Tour. Instead of playing in qualifying tournaments in order to get into main draws, Rogers is now getting straight into main draws of tournaments, including this week’s Family Circle Cup on Daniel Island.
That’s a big deal for Rogers, who was a ballgirl at the Family Circle Cup and trained there as well.
“It’s different for me this year because I’m in the main draw because of my ranking,” said Rogers, who is now ranked No. 86 and has played in the Family Circle Cup main draw twice before. “I didn’t need a wild card or have to ask for any favors. So it’s a really big milestone for me because I grew up there.
“I was always thankful for the wild cards they gave me,” Rogers said. “But to earn my way in, that’s a very different feeling for me.”
That main-draw feeling also comes with a sharp edge, however. Instead of playing her way into form in qualifying — as she did before each of her big wins last summer — Rogers is now immediately faced with a quality foe in the first round.
For example, this year Rogers main-drawed straight into the Australian Open, one of the four Grand Slam tournaments and a big deal for a young player. But her first-round foe was No. 67 Ajla Tomljanovic, and Rogers was quickly out of the tournament in three sets. In her next tournament, Rogers’ first-round foe was none other than No. 2 Maria Sharapova, and Rogers was gone in straight sets.
In fact, Rogers was 0-6 in singles matches this year until she went to an ITF event in Osprey, Fla., last week and won twice before losing in the quarterfinals.
Getting used to life in the main draw can be a challenge, said defending Family Circle Cup champion Andrea Petkovic.
“For me, the first thing was mentally accepting that you are one of those players, that you are equal to those players in the main draw,” said Petkovic, who defeated Rogers in the finals at Bad Gastein last year. “And then you don’t have those warmup matches anymore. You have to be right on point from the first match on, and you can’t let any weaknesses happen to you in that first match. It’s definitely a different story.”
Rogers knows she has to keep improving in order to make her next breakthrough. She spent much of the winter training in Los Angeles with new coach Marc Lucero.
“I feel like I have a clear idea of my game and what I need to do,” Rogers said. “I spent a lot of time over the last year developing that. Every player has an identity on court, and you have to believe in that and trust it — ‘This is my game, and this is what I’m going to do to win.’ ”
Lucero, a former USTA coach who is now traveling with Rogers, is part of that process.
“It really helps,” Rogers said. “He’s there to see all your matches, to see how you respond to certain situations. He can say, ‘Remember what you did last week, we’re doing to do these drills to improve that.’ You get lots of feedback from the matches, and a coach can help with the travel stuff as well and take some of that off my plate.”
Petkovic, for one, is confident Rogers will make it through this stage, as well.
“She’s such a dangerous player,” Petkovic said. “She hits the ball well and so clean, it’s very difficult to play against her. She’s improved so much already, and she’ll improve even more. She’ll go far.”
For this week, Rogers will be happy if she can show off that improvement to her hometown fans.
“It is hard to treat this like any other tournament,” she said. “There are a lot more emotions involved for me here, but at the same time it’s really fun. I get to see my friends and family and get them involved in what I do, in something that’s a big part of my life.
“After all, it’s hard to fly all your friends to Australia.”