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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.

Victoria Azarenka Victoria Azarenka of Belarus celebrates after defeating Maria Sharapova of Russia during the finals of the Bank of the West Classic at Stanford University on August 1, 2010 in Stanford, California.

Inaugurating the US Open Series for the WTA is the 28-player tournament at Stanford’s intimate stadium, where four top-10 players and three Slam champions converge.  Like the overstuffed draws at Sydney and Eastbourne, this tournament’s small scale and sterling entry list combine to produce fascinating encounters from the opening round onwards.

Top half:  Returning as the top seed and defending champion, Wimbledon semifinalist Azarenka hopes to extend her first-half momentum from what has become the finest season of her career.  Since a bye instantly moves her within one win of the quarterfinals, she could face top-20 opponent Cibulkova in her second match of the tournament.  The Slovak bedeviled Vika for prolonged stretches of their Miami meeting, which she led by a set and a break before fading.  A quarterfinalist at Wimbledon, Cibulkova also has enjoyed one of her most successful seasons but faces a tricky opener against Date-Krumm.  Eliminating Safina and winning a set from Dementieva here last year, the ageless Japanese legend struggled throughout the first few months of 2011.  Nevertheless, she rebounded brilliantly at Wimbledon to collaborate with Venus on a second-round classic that illustrated her uncanny knack for exploiting the geometry of the court.  Also mounting a comeback in this section is Mirjana Lucic, who troubled Cibulkova at Wimbledon.  The Croat opens against Christina McHale, perhaps the brightest ray of hope for the future of American women’s tennis although far from a future superstar.

Projected to meet Azarenka in the semifinals is 2009 champion Bartoli, reinstated in the top 10 following stirring surges at the European majors.  A semifinalist at Roland Garros and a quarterfinalist at Wimbledon, the eccentric double-fister ambushed former champions in each of those tournaments (Kuznetsova and Serena, respectively).   But she failed to blunt Lisicki’s serving power on the grass and will face one of two imposing servers on this fast hard court, either Canada’s Rebecca Marino or home hope Coco Vandeweghe.  In the quarterfinals, Bartoli might reprise her meeting with Ivanovic at last year’s tournament, should the former #1 progress past Morita and a qualifier.  While those victories would seem well within range, recent losses to opponents like Larsson and Cetkovska suggest that anything could happen when the Serb takes the court.  Early in her partnership with Nigel Sears and Scott Byrnes, Ivanovic will hope to draw emotional stability from the secure support team around her.  If she does reach Azarenka in the semifinals, she will have more positive memories to bolster her confidence than does Bartoli, repeatedly dominated by the Belarussian.

Semifinal:  Azarenka d. Bartoli

Bottom half:  In arguably the weakest section lies 2010 semifinalist Radwanska, who has relished the extra jolt of pace with which this slick surface endows her underpowered strokes.  The Pole has suffered a series of uncharacteristic setbacks this year, however, as a souring relationship with her father-coach may have contributed to her depleted confidence.   Also searching for a momentum boost is Stosur, last year’s top seed but now hovering at the fringes of the top 10.  Banished from the first week of every major this season, the former Roland Garros runner-up has found her limited game exposed by those with a more balanced range of weapons.  Still a threat when she finds her first serve regularly, Stosur defeated Serena here two years ago but likely will open against doubles partner and Wimbledon semifinalist Lisicki.  The mightiest server of her generation, the German should score yet another upset and perhaps proceed to a quarterfinal against Radwanska that would showcase a dramatic contrast of styles.  In the aftermath of her Wimbledon breakthrough, though, will Lisicki suffer a lull in her motivation?

Wedged uncomfortably into the lowest quarter are the two greatest attractions of the draw, responsible for collecting 16 of the 17 majors owned by Stanford participants.  Thirteen of those belong to an unseeded player currently ranked outside the top 100, who will ignite her campaign against the woefully overmatched Rodionova.  Among the most intriguing first-round matches in the draw is the encounter that pits Goerges against Kirilenko to decide Serena’s second-round foe.  After a sparkling clay season that included a title and two wins over Wozniacki, the German receded from the spotlight during the grass season as her compatriot Lisicki shone.  If she can find the consistency to outhit Kirilenko, her penetrating first-strike power could challenge Serena, still rusty at Wimbledon.  Eyeing a probable opener against Hantuchova, Sharapova seeks to move a round further than at her last tournament and her last Stanford appearance.  Excelling on the specialty surfaces this year, she must conquer an opponent who also scored notable albeit more muted accomplishments in recent months.  The three-time major champion stands alone among the top 20 in winning two or more matches at every tournament this year, but she probably must snap a five-match skid against Serena to continue that streak.

Semifinal:  S. Williams d. Lisicki

Final:  Azarenka d. S. Williams

***

Juan Martin Del Potro of Argentina kisses the championship trophy after defeating Andy Roddick in the Countrywide Classic finals in Straus Stadium at the Los Angeles Tennis Center-UCLA on August 10, 2008 in Westwood, California.  Del Potro defeated Roddick 6-1, 7-6(2).

Casting a brief glance at the relatively meager ATP draw in Los Angeles, a few defining characteristics emerge.  The most prominent figure here, 2008 champion Del Potro, already has rejoined the top 20 and will hope to elevate his ranking further during his most successful period of the season.  Among his rivals is the enigmatic future star Grigor Dimitrov, who continues to alternate flashes of brilliance with inexplicable lapses.  In fact, the LA draw features a host of such unpredictable competitors, from former Australian Open finalists Gonzalez and Baghdatis to Gulbis and Malisse.  Forgotten figures like Haas and Tursunov also hope to snatch a few fleeting moments of glory as their careers dwindle.  Hoping to build upon his Atlanta semifinal, top American prospect Ryan Harrison will confront fellow rising star Ricardas Berankis in the first edition of what may become a recurrent rivalry.  Fresh from defending his Atlanta title, Fish looks likely to appear in a second straight final, where he will find Del Potro a taller task than Isner in tennis if not in literal terms.

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