Maria Sharapova - Bank of the West Classic - Day 5

As premier players well know, staying at the top presents a greater challenge than getting there.  Following their Wimbledon exploits, the leading WTA performers there found themselves tasked with preserving their momentum through the three-week midsummer hiatus.  While first-time Slam champion Kvitova remained inactive last week, the others who broke through on the grass delivered their opening statements of the second half.  The only member of this group in College Park, Tamira Paszek succeeded in building upon her surprise Wimbledon quarterfinal by extending top-seeded Peer to three sets and 186 minutes in a tightly contested semifinal.  The player whom she defeated to reach that quarterfinal, Ksenia Pervak, had summoned a similarly encouraging effort by reaching the final of the equally minor tournament in Baku a week before.  Although nobody should confuse either tournament with an occasion of consequence, the additional wins should confirm each player’s confidence that their grass-court accomplishments represented a turning point rather than an anomaly.

But the week’s most compelling WTA action occurred on the opposite coast, where Wimbledon runner-up Sharapova as well as semifinalists Lisicki and Azarenka sought to showcase their talents.  By far the most impressive of this group was the 21-year-old German, whose third consecutive semifinal demonstrated a consistency and durability absent during her recurrent injuries.  In two of her Stanford victories, Lisicki overcame two dramatically different playing styles in the serve-oriented Stosur and the death-by-paper-cut style of Radwanska.  Unbroken on serve against the former, she adjusted to the more unpredictable rhythm of the latter and competed resiliently even when the match looked on the verge of slipping away after the second set.  Less statistically excellent than the Stosur victory, the Radwanska win impressed us more because it showed Lisicki’s ability to win without depending entirely on her aces.  Dropping serve several times during that match, the German battled fiercely to regain the breaks and did not waver in focus during the numerous multiple-deuce games that developed.

Less remarkable were the weeks enjoyed (or not enjoyed) by the other two members of Wimbledon’s final four who appeared at Stanford.  In the opening match of her title defense, Azarenka slumped to a stunning defeat against a qualifier ranked outside the top 100, the lowest-ranked player to defeat the world #4 on a hard court since 2006.  While one doffs the hat to New Zealand #1 Erakovic for her first win over a top-20 opponent, the Wimbledon semifinalist scarcely resembled the contender that she hopes to become during a limp, helpless third set.  A round later, Erakovic would win just two games against Wimbledon quarterfinalist Cibulkova, whose resounding victory merely heightened the defending champion’s embarrassment.  Also eager to put an underwhelming week behind her, as she said herself, is the Wimbledon runner-up.  Only sporadically brilliant during a three-set victory over Hantuchova, Sharapova dropped seven straight games at one stage in that match and then lost nine of the first ten games in an unjustifiably anticipated quarterfinal with Serena.  Able to compensate for her fickle serve with scorching returns against most opponents, the Russian cannot rely upon that plan against a server like the American.

On the other hand, the relative fortunes of Lisicki and Sharapova depended substantially upon their proximity to the eventual Stanford champion, who played as though one could have dropped the last two digits from her triple-digit ranking.  Against the Wimbledon semifinalist and finalist, Serena conceded just seven total games as her spontaneous athletic shot-making soared past the more mechanized offenses of her opponents.  Vital to her title run, as usual, was the 13-time Slam champion’s serve, which surrendered only five service breaks in five matches—an excellent week even by ATP serving standards.  Rarely witnessed at an event lacking in prestige, Serena’s competitive ferocity saturated Stanford’s modest arena and prevented opponents from accumulating emotional energy of their own.  Her last victim and Wimbledon nemesis, Bartoli, attempted to assert herself early in the match with fistpumps and glares after almost every point with a positive outcome, but her self-exhortations looked less like expressions of inner confidence or willpower than efforts to convince herself that she could win.  Reserved for key points and outstanding shots, by contrast, Serena’s growls and clenched fists illustrated the confirmation of her expectations.  Despite the cascade of stunning aces and winners that flowed from her racket this week, we will remember longest a point that she lost.  In a semifinal long since decided, Lisicki dragged Serena into the net with a drop shot, then lobbed over her head, and then feathered another drop volley.  At most non-majors, one might have expected the younger Williams to concede the point after the first or second of these shots.  This time, she charged down the first two and nearly the third before sprawling on the sideline as it eluded her.  Honed by her year-long absence, Serena’s relentless competitive appetite propelled her as much as her serve towards a title that she relished more than one would have imagined.

Serena Williams Serena Williams celebrates match point against Marion Bartoli of France during the final of the Bank of the West Classic at the Taube Family Tennis Stadium on July 31, 2011 in Stanford, California.

Will that hunger carry her to a third US Open crown?  Tempering enthusiasm over her week at Stanford is the realization that she defeated only one genuine contender in New York there (Sharapova), and her dominance over the Russian merely continued a pre-existing trend.  Serena did not face any of this year’s Slam champions at Stanford, nor did she confront current #1 Wozniacki or an in-form Azarenka, both of whom have troubled her before.  At the Premier Five events that lie ahead, we may gain a clearer understanding of where she fits into the field at a wide-open Open, for Li or Kvitova might well prove more formidable challenges than those that she faced last week.

Not the only unseeded champion of the US Open Series, Serena accompanied a most unlikely figure in her charge to a California champion’s podium.  Notorious for his slothful work ethic, this inveterate ambush artist triggered memories of past upsets over Federer and Djokovic with his quarterfinal victory over Del Potro.  In the past, though, Gulbis generally had failed to extend the impetus from those stunning accomplishments; before this week, he had won only one title at a tiny event in Delray Beach.  Breaking from that precedent here, he scored his first victory over a top-10 opponent in a semifinal or final in a tense, compelling encounter with Atlanta champion Fish.  The first set unfolded much as a cynic might have scripted it with the pampered, profligate Latvian wasting opportunities to break before double-faulting on set point.  But the narrative crumbled midway through the second set, when Gulbis declined to content himself with an excellent week and turned the tide decisively.  Although he nearly wasted a 5-1 lead in the final against a visibly tiring opponent, but the three consecutive winners with which the match ended suggested an uncharacteristic poise under pressure.  Perhaps the shift to a new coach, the equally enigmatic Guillermo Canas, has provided Gulbis with a temporary injection of motivation that will anesthetize him against complacency for the next few months.

As Fish continued to accelerate from his Wimbledon quarterfinal into a successful summer, Ryan Harrison also built upon his fine effort at the All England Club in a five-set loss to Ferrer.  In his second straight semifinal, the swiftly rising American teen dueled Fish far more convincingly than during their Atlanta meeting.  Undeterred by a first-set bagel, Harrison clawed himself back into the match against a far more experienced opponent and came within a few points of his debut final.  The outlook for American men’s tennis no longer looks so bleak, especially considering his successes this year against Raonic and Berankis, contemporaries likely to rival Harrison for significant titles in two or three years.

Challenging Nadal throughout their suspenseful four-setter at Wimbledon, Del Potro appeared to have regressed somewhat in Los Angeles. Somewhat like Sharapova, his unremarkable week stemmed in part from the vagaries of a draw that placed him near the eventual, unexpected champion.  Nevertheless, the 2009 US Open champion not only struggled at times to dispatch the faded Blake but should have found a way to at least hamper and harry Gulbis as Fish did.  Notwithstanding the Latvian’s eventual title and history of victories against elite opponents, Del Potro must summon stronger performances against these dangerous dark horses in order to reassert himself as a contender.

After one week of the US Open Series, more questions have been asked than answered.  We look forward next week to untangling the leading storylines from San Diego and Washington, following a preview of the now simultaneous Canadian tournaments.

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