She's Back: Strong and Solid Serena Wins Third Bank of the West Title

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Was this the best Bank of the West Classic ever? Maybe so. The tennis world was waiting to see how Serena Williams would recover after Wimbledon—was she okay? Sister Venus Williams, at 34, seemed to drink from the fountain of youth, hitting an incredible 10-stride sprint shot during a straight-set victory over a former No. 1 almost a decade her junior, Victoria Azarenka. Add a world record for fastest serve, the unexpected arrival of a characterful teen upstart, and a player field that included four top 10 players and nine of the top 20, and as tournament director Kim Hall pointed out, this year’s Bank of the West “brought back memories of years past when the event was loaded with legends like Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova, Martina Hingis, Lindsay Davenport, and Kim Clijsters, as well as Venus and Serena.” (For her part, Evert chimed in on television that Bay Area fans are “intelligent and tennis-savvy.”)

As for the Serena question, the answer is a solid yes. The current No. 1 adeptly fielded questions about her Wimbledon woes in a press conference at the start of the tournament, then proceeded to play strong, composed tennis—her demeanor on court was notably calm and indrawn—to claim her third Bank of the West title. The road wasn’t always smooth—self-described “California girl” Serena’s wins were characterized by slow starts, and she had to overcome a one-set deficit against Ana Ivanovic (who beat her in Australia this year) in the quarterfinals. Only twenty or so minutes into the final, Serena was already down 1-5 to Angelique Kerber, until—becoming more aggressive and moving forward—she countered Kerber’s five games in a row with five of her own, staving off a pair of set points at 2-5 on the way to a 7-6, 6-3 victory.

Though Spain reigned supreme in doubles, thanks to winners Garbine Muguruza and Carla Suarez Navarro, this year’s Bank of the West had a strong German subplot. In the second round against Ivanovic, Sabine Lisicki broke Venus Williams’ 129 mph world record for fastest serve by a woman with a 131 bomb against Ana Ivanovic. Ironically, Ivanovic—who won the match, going on to reenter the top 10 during Stanford—ended up with more solid serving stats overall, a fact that reflects the showy Lisicki’s general struggles off of grass courts. Two of her countrywomen, Kerber and the charismatic Andrea Petkovic, fared better. Petko defeated Venus in a dramatic three-set quarterfinal before falling to Serena in the semis. Kerber took advantage of the bottom half of a top-heavy draw, clawing back from the brink of defeat with some help from opponent Varvara Lepchenko in the semis. Her forehand was firing in the early stages of the final against Serena, but when Serena turned on her power game, Kerber was left clutching her oft-ailing back in the wake of some of the more grueling points.

One of the Bank of the West Classic’s highlights happened early on, when 16-year-old qualifier Naomi Osaka fought off a match point to upset Sam Stosur in the first round. Like last year’s US Open Stosur-conqueror Victoria Duval, Osaka has Haitian roots, though her mother is Japanese and she claims Japan as her home country. Perhaps following the path of the Williams sisters, Osaka and her older sister Mari have skipped the juniors entirely before joining the pro tour, and Naomi brought some bold swagger and hilarious deadpan wit to her first-ever press conference after the Stosur win. Though her game is very much a work in progress, she is capable of serving big, and she hit a blinding forehand winner in the second set of her second-round loss to the sporting Petkovic, who marveled “Did you see that forehand?” afterward. If Osaka and fellow 16-year-old Ana Konjuh rise in the ranks, the WTA may have some next-level big hitting in its future.

Konjuh wasn’t at Stanford, but her home country of Croatia played a supporting role in Serena’s win. After her Wimbledon wipeout , Serena traveled there with longtime hitting partner Aleksandar “Sascha” Bajin, to find her footing and confidence again on court, and during her winner’s speech, Serena dedicated her victory to Bajin, who’s been perhaps even more important than usual to her in recent weeks, with coach Patrick Mouratoglou not rejoining her camp until the Rogers Cup in Montreal. Serena’s third Bank of the West win ties her with Evert and Davenport behind Navratilova, who won the event six times. It’s also Serena’s fourth title of the year, the most of any WTA player, and she remains undefeated against top 10 players in 2014. (Conversely, Australian Open winner Li Na has yet to score a top 10 win.) Make no mistake—once again, a strong win at Stanford has set Serena’s US Open campaign in motion.

All photos by Brent Bishop.