WESLEY CHAPEL — The January air was raw. For that matter, so was her psyche. The previous year had walloped Shelby Rogers, leaving her with an aching back, a throbbing right knee and splintering confidence.
She needed this low-key 2016 tournament at Saddlebrook Resort, a $25,000 blip on the International Tennis Federation challenger circuit. For the Charleston, S.C., native, it was more about collecting mojo than money. After 17 first-round losses in 2015, Rogers needed to rediscover her timing — and her edge.
So she took the court to all the fanfare that roughly a dozen spectators could muster.
"The goal is to just get matches, get feeling healthy, get comfortable on the clay (court)," Rogers said. "I was staying with a family I knew that lives here in Saddlebrook, so they were there, my coach, maybe five others."
Rogers made it to the semifinals, losing to eventual winner Sofia Kenin of Pembroke Pines. Four months later, she staged the most exhilarating run of her professional life, upsetting four consecutive opponents — including two-time Wimbledon champ Petra Kvitova — to reach the quarterfinals of the claycourt French Open.
"I was super-positive, enjoying what I was doing, and everything just kind of came together," Rogers said.
Now, 15 months after arriving at Saddlebrook inconspicuously, Rogers returns triumphantly as a member of the U.S. Fed Cup team. Rehab has evolved into a rebirth.
This time, a few hundred more spectators will be watching. She will take center court today against the Czech Republic as the world's 49th-ranked singles player and the first American woman not named Williams to reach the French Open quarterfinals since 2005.
"She's got a lot of confidence," U.S. captain Kathy Rinaldi said.
Rogers began this year with an upset of fourth-seeded Simona Halep in the first round of the Australian Open. This month at the Volvo Car Open in her hometown, she upset top-seeded American Madison Keys en route to the quarterfinals.
"I lost (17) first-round matches (in 2015). … I mean, that's tough," said Rogers, a devout Lightning fan who served as the team's social-media captain for a game two seasons ago.
"You feel like a total failure. And just kind of persevering through that, believing in myself and having a good team around me that is pushing me and believing in me as well, I'm pretty proud of myself for getting through that."
At times, Rogers grimaced her way through it.
The knee pain stemmed from a torn right MCL in 2015. Back problems followed. Amid her slump, Rogers, 24, said she pondered walking away from the sport she and older sister Sabra — who played at Emory University — had embraced after a prepubescent foray into dance lessons.
"I think everybody (has doubts)," she said. "Like, 'Okay, maybe I'm not good enough. Maybe I shouldn't do this. Maybe this wasn't meant for me. I tried.' But deep down I kind of believed, 'Okay, that's not true. You chose to do this; you love this sport. You play because this is what you want to do, and you know you're good enough. Just get healthy and get back at it.' "
Healthy for nearly a year, Rogers — versatile and rangy at 5 feet 9 — enters the Fed Cup with a dastardly serve and the type of match mettle necessary if the United States hopes to thwart the Czech Republic's recent dominance. The Czechs have won three straight titles and five of the past six. Rogers has converted 51.8 percent of her break-point chances this year, which ranks 10th on the WTA tour.
The only thing fragile these days are her tear ducts. Rogers is the odds-on favorite to well up first at today's opening ceremony, when pageantry and patriotism converge.
"Happy, sad, angry — anything can really trigger tears for me," she said.
Today, the tears come full circle.
All the way back to Saddlebrook.
Contact Joey Knight at j[email protected]. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.