BANK OF THE WEST CLASSIC: Keys Triumphs Amidst Worries About Future

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Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Bill Simons

STANFORD—

There was a feeling of melancholy.

For all the bright moments of happiness that teen CiCi Bellis had given fans throughout the week; for all the hype of Maria Sharapova’s return; for all the delight of the first all-American Bank of the West Classic final in five years, insiders couldn’t help but wonder whether this would be the last big day of pro tennis in the San Francisco Bay Area for years to come.

After all, the Davis Cup hasn’t been played here in 38 years. The SAP Open left San Jose long ago, and now word was circulating throughout tennis that the sponsor of the WTA’s Palo Alto tournament, the Bank of the West, would be putting its money into the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, and that there were also issues with the tournament’s host, Stanford University.

Longtime observers were hopeful the tournament would stay, but they felt far from certain. But let’s be real. All this speculation was just insider noise that didn’t impact fans’ emotions. As the week started, they hoped the appealing Petra Kvitova just might give us a Czech fairy tale, and win another tournament after coming back from the horrific stabbing she suffered.

But Bellis, who has a penchant for putting big names in their place, briskly dispatched Petra, 6-2, 6-0. Unfortunately, Bellis’ hopes remained in place for less than 20 hours before Coco Vandeweghe began raining her Coco pop blasts on the diminutive Peninsula 18-year-old. Suddenly, it was Vandeweghe who had high hopes – and for good reason. This year she reached the Aussie Open semis and the Wimbledon quarterfinals. Meanwhile she hired a new coach – Pat Cash. Now she was eager to win her first tournament in America and to collect a $132,380 prize.

Ironically, in the end, it was Madison Keys – who came into Palo Alto with few hopes – who prevailed. For years Keys had been the great hope for America’s post-Williams generation. She streaked to the 2015 Australian Open semis, reached the fourth round of every major last year and rose to No. 7. But a year ago, here at Stanford, she blew out her wrist. There was a botched surgery, and a follow-up procedure after the French Open. With significant fear, she played Wimbledon. She came to Palo Alto just hoping to get some matches in and to use it as a springboard for a US Open run. In her first match, she was down a set and a break to No. 218 Caroline Dolehide before she got into gear. She impressed when she swept aside Wimbledon winner Garbine Muguruza in the semis.

But in the final, it was Vandeweghe who took the initiative, gaining three break points in a scintillating and tight first set. But each time Keys was down break point, she displayed big, aggressive, first-strike tennis. Each time she won with a gutsy conviction.

Her coach Lindsay Davenport told IT, “It was amazing how she held all those break points. She was going big, but she wasn’t forcing it.”

In a match with high quality and slim margins, neither player managed to break in the first set, as Vandeweghe answered Keys’ power with power. But deep into the first-set tiebreak, Vandeweghe blinked when a Keys forehand hit the top of the net. Coco could only manage to flick it right back to Keys, who easily hit a forehand to the open court to gain a 6-4 lead – which she would not relinquish.

In the second set, when Coco played a loose game to go down 4-5, there were no clouds and few sounds. Only sorrow and memory interrupted the moment. I wondered, could this possibly be the last break of serve we will see for years in a major tournament in the Bay Area?

Keys promptly got down to the task at hand. She quickly secured the title (her third overall and first on home soil) and then surprised her friend Coco by joyously sitting on her lap. It was a sweet moment of girl-pal celebration at an awards ceremony that made no mention of the momentous challenges facing the tourney.

In any case, Lindsay Davenport, who won this title three times, told IT, “Madison’s win is huge. It’s been a really tough year, especially on the heels of her most successful year. She started off not playing very well, then had all the injuries. To see her turn it around means a lot.

“I was so excited with her ability to hold serve under a lot of pressure. Her serve held up. She didn’t get broken once since the first game against Muguruza in the semis. That’s not easy.

“Two surgeries in six months were obviously so difficult. This validates everything she’s done in the last six weeks. After the French, we were not in a good place. She had another surgery and re-committed to the whole process. So it’s a great start to the summer. Stay healthy, stay happy, stay motivated – when those three are all in order, she thrives.

“She’s not feeling pressure and it helps that all the Americans are now playing great and that Serena’s coming back. She embraces it – that there are a bunch of Americans around her now.”

Davenport spoke of her relationship with her pupil, saying, “Maddy and I have similar games. She’s a better athlete than I am. She has a bigger weapon in the forehand. She doesn’t return quite as well and that’s something we are working on. In relationships you have a connection or you don’t. From early on we have been very close. Even when we were not working together we were close. She believes me – she trusts me. I’m the same with her. I understand so much who she is as a person. We’re the same way. I know that when I say something I better mean it – she’s going to listen.

“People underestimate her competitiveness. She’s feisty and a fighter. She may not look like it, but she is. Anyone who watches her knows that anything is possible and we feel good things are going to happen.”

But then my mind asks, “Are good things going to happen for this tournament?” And I imagine all the greats who’ve played here. There’s legendary Billie Jean, efficient Chrissie Evert, and Sue Barker, who went on to become a BBC star. I picture waif Monica Seles with her two-handed groundies in the Oakland Coliseum. There’s Navratilova – the gay community flocked to see their star. I recall the most magical moment of all: the historic debut of 14-year-old Venus Williams. Plus, I see visions of Serena, Hingis and Clijsters.

Now will all this vanish? I hear a random voice say, “We have a tournament – but we don’t have a sponsor and we don’t have a site.”

But talks are continuing. New sponsors are being wooed. Sites near and far are being considered. Much is at stake.

The Bank of the West Classic is an icon: the longest running women-only tourney in history, a key part of the Bay Area sports landscape. A worthy tradition filled with triumph and beauty. Today young Madison Keys sustained her power and emerged triumphant. Let’s hope the tournament’s IMG owners will be able to sustain a Bay Area treasure, an annual sporting celebration we love – one that deserves to remain and thrive.

Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

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