- Stanford Classic
A sound showing from Serena
Back in her home state of California this week, the Stanford Classic served as the equivalent of a favourite blanket, a home-cooked meal, contentment for Serena Williams, who responded with a winning smile tennis fans haven't seen in a while.
It is premature to say whether Williams' 7-6(1) 6-3 victory over Angelique Kerber on Sunday for her tour-leading fourth singles title of the year signals a 2014 turning point. And a WTA tour event, even with victories over the eighth-ranked Kerber, No.18 Andrea Petkovic in the semis and No.11 Ana Ivanovic in the quarters, is not the same as a Grand Slam, where Williams has notoriously struggled this season.
But this was important, and does ratchet up the curiosity for this week regarding how Williams, the defending champion, will respond at the Canadian Open in Montreal, where hometown darling Eugenie Bouchard, Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova and an ever-determined Maria Sharapova await.
So dramatic and scary was Williams' exit from the Wimbledon doubles tournament last month that it was fair to wonder who we would see at Stanford this week. How would she respond physically after a siege in which she called herself "really, really sick", was ordered by doctors not to fly out of Great Britain for several days and said she would require further testing?
'I'm moving in the right direction'
- Serena Williams stared at the court, took a deep breath and seemed to clear her head after falling behind in the first set. She dominated the rest of the way.
- Playing her first tournament since her bizarre exit from Wimbledon, world No.1 Williams won her WTA-leading fourth title of the year, beating third-seed Angelique Kerber 7-6(1) 6-3 on Sunday in the Stanford Classic.
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And just as importantly, where would her spirits and confidence be just over four weeks later?
While it is noteworthy that Williams struggled with her early timing in the first sets of each of the four matches she played at Stanford, it was also easy to see glimpses of the "old Serena" - particularly when she closed out all four matches in gritty form.
Against Kerber on Sunday, Williams trailed 1-5 in the first set (and saved two set points at 2-5) before reeling off the next five games to take a 6-5 lead, then won the tie-break at 7-1. And with her first serve varying in speed from 100 to 120 mph, she turned up the pressure in the second to win her third straight Stanford title.
In accepting her trophy, Williams dedicated her victory to hitting partner and coach Sascha Bajin. Patrick Mouratoglou, who re-affirmed last month that their on-court partnership was intact, was not in Palo Alto this week but will reportedly join Williams in Montreal.
Repeatedly, she referred to being "stuck at the hip" with Bajin and said "he got me through the week".
However she did it, Williams clearly was happy and positive in her post-match news conferences. And a happy and positive Williams is usually bad news for her opponents, particularly during hard court season.
After Montreal, she is off to Cincinnati and then it's onto the US Open, where she is the two-time defending champion and five-time winner. A win there would be her 18th major title, tying her with Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova on the all-time list, behind Steffi Graf's 22 Open era titles.
"I'm on the right track at least," Williams said on Sunday. "I feel like I'm getting there and I just want to continue. This tells me I'm moving in the right direction. There's a lot of room for improvement, but it was a good win for me to get the momentum going."
Up until this year, a healthy Williams was a good indicator for her success. But after fourth-, second- and third-round exits from the Australian Open, French Open and Wimbledon, combined with the circumstances surrounding her exit at SW19, there was every reason to wonder where she would be with her 33rd birthday approaching.
Monday, Williams will find herself at the top of the rankings for the 76th straight week and 200th week in her career. She clearly knows how it feels, though she vowed after her semifinal win Saturday that she does not reflect on past success often enough.
"I think it would be good," she said, "to just be like, 'Serena, you have done everything you needed to do. Just have fun and enjoy yourself.' "
Sunday at least appeared to be a step in that direction.
Melissa Isaacson, a tennis writer since 1986, is an award-winning columnist for ESPN.com