For 120 years, Stanford University, considered the “Ivy League of the West Coast”, has repeatedly drawn the cream of the crop of American intelligencia. Perhaps, it is poetic then that in a week that saw a strong field descend on the idyllic Palo Alto campus to kick off the North American hard court season, Serena Williams, oft regarded as the cream of the crop of the WTA, aced every test put before her at the Bank of the West Classic to capture her first title on American soil since 2008. It was a jaw-dropping display of focus and power that served as an ominous shot across the bow to the rest of the field as the women work their way towards the final Grand Slam of the year.
In only her third tournament back from a foot injury that left her sidelined for almost a year, Williams demolished a field that included some of the hottest players on tour. In a blockbuster quarter-final match-up with Wimbledon finalist Maria Sharapova, Williams conceded only four games as she overpowered the unsettled Russian, 6-1, 6-3. She followed up that performance less than 24 hours later, dismissing Wimbledon semi-finalist and Birmingham champion, Sabine Lisicki, 6-1, 6-2 in less than an hour.
While neither Sharapova nor Lisicki brought anything close to their best, Williams showcased a brand of first-strike tennis that left the crowd gasping with delight and her opponents shaking their heads in futility.
Heading into the final against her vanquisher at Wimbledon, Marion Bartoli, Williams made no secret that revenge was on her mind. “It's a whole new match. I probably would have preferred to win at Wimbledon,” she ruefully laughed. But Williams would get her revenge, fighting back from a break down in the first set to romp to a 7-5, 6-1 victory.
The win vaulted the 13-time Grand Slam champion back into the top 100 at number 79. A strong run through the rest of the North American hard courts (she has committed to play in both Toronto and Cincinnati) may potentially land her one of the coveted top 32 seeding positions at the US Open, which surely would be a relief to both the tournament and tour.
It was a week of rebirth and reinvigoration for Williams. Entering the tournament ranked 169 in the world, she seemed to invite the challenges that lay ahead of her on her comeback quest.
“I feel like I'm a kid again and have goals," Williams said. "When I first came (on tour), my goal was to be in the top 100 and to get into a Grand Slam without needing a wild card. To have those goals again is fun."
Rediscovering the desire of her youth even extended off-court, as she donned a pink Hello Kitty knapsack into press conferences and lamented the fact that she was too intimidated to talk to teen-hearthrob Justin Bieber at a recent awards show. Despite her relaxed, light-hearted demeanor, she maintained her intense focus and commitment on her road back to the top of the women's game.
"It's a long way to go. It's about the climb. It's not a matter of how fast you get there, it's just the getting there. So we'll see." Needless to say, Serena Williams is well on her way.
While Serena was reminding everyone of her class, the mercurial Ernests Gulbis reminded everyone of his talent and potential, making a run to the title at the Farmers Classic in Los Angeles. With newly hired coach Guillermo Canas by his side, Gulbis, always tall on talent but short on results, defeated Juan Martin del Potro in straight sets in the second round and then came back from a set down to topple top seed Mardy Fish in the final, 5-7, 6-4, 6-4, to hoist his second career title.
The US Open is calling.