But Williams took a step in the right direction this past weekend by securing her third singles title at the Bank of the West Classic in Stanford, California with a come from behind 7-6 (1), 6-3 triumph over the left-handed German Angelique Kerber in the final. Williams has many attributes as a champion, including resilience, immense power and an underrated vocabulary of skills, and an unwavering fighting spirit. But perhaps her finest quality is the propensity she has to close out opportunities whenever they are presented to her. Put Serena within striking distance of a singles championship, and almost invariably she knows how to come through.
The Bank of the West title was her fourth in 2014, and she has not been beaten in a final all year. Over the course of her sterling career, Williams has been a prodigious big match player if ever there was one, winning 61 of 78 final round clashes dating back to her second year as a professional in 1999. When you can prevail in more than 78% of the title round matches during your career, you have clearly done some awfully good work. Williams has always had a knack for rising to important occasions; in major finals, her record is a remarkable 17-4. Only her sister Venus (twice), Maria Sharapova and Samantha Stosur have upended Williams in title round duels at Grand Slam events.
Her latest tournament triumph could not have been timelier. She had opened 2014 with a tournament victory in Brisbane, and had added two more titles in the spring at Miami and Rome. It was not as if she had not been impressive at various stages of the season. But she knows she is measured by the highest standards, and a year ago she won 78 of 82 matches and ten of the fourteen tournaments she played. Many authorities believed that Serena would produce similarly staggering numbers in 2014, but that has not been the case.
Given that background, Williams was perhaps even more eager than usual to take the crown in California. She had not been in that long a slump, but her pair of setbacks at Roland Garros and Wimbledon had taken a considerable emotional toll. Garbine Muguruza had blasted Serena off the court in the second round of Roland Garros, rolling to a 6-2, 6-2 victory. Then the Frenchwoman Alize Cornet had rallied improbably from a decisive first set loss in the third round of Wimbledon to oust a strikingly apprehensive Williams 1-6, 6-3, 6-4.
Williams knew she needed to make amends in Stanford, and she did just that. At no stage of the week was she convincing from start to finish in a match, but the fact remains that she won the tournament deservedly and raised her game when it mattered after a series of slow starts. That was admirable. In her skirmish with Kerber, Williams was thoroughly outplayed in the early stages, and was entirely fortunate to win the opening set. It all started innocently enough for Williams, who connected with all five first serves in the opening game, closing it out with an ace out wide in the deuce court to hold at 15 for 1-0.
Kerber had saved a match point in a three set semifinal victory over Varvara Lepchenko in an all-lefty semifinal collision the night before. She may have been fatigued at the outset of her appointment with Williams. Kerber was ahead 40-30 in the second game but double faulted into the net. She had a second game point, but double faulted into the net once more. Kerber missed her first serve on the next two points but Williams twice erred off the backhand, allowing the German back to 1-1. Kerber then broke Williams at love in the third game. Kerber made a very deep return to induce an error on the first point, and connected with a running forehand passing shot winner for 0-40, but Williams gave away the other two points with careless mistakes.
Kerber held on from deuce for 3-1 as Williams still could not find her range off the ground, but Serena coasted to 40-0 in the fifth game. Yet she was fretting over her racket strings, and not feeling the ball well at all. Kerber rallied to deuce but Williams garnered a fourth game point, which she gave away with a double fault. Williams was clearly uncomfortable. She missed consecutive backhands, enabling Kerber to establish a double service break lead at 4-1. Williams switched rackets at the changeover, but Kerber held at 30 for 5-1. She had won five games in a row, all the while playing solid percentage tennis as Williams supplied an inordinate number of errors.
And yet, the 32-year-old American was not ready to concede the set. She held at love for 2-5 with four outright winners, three off her two-hander, one on a forehand swing volley. Serving for the set in the eighth game, Kerber moved to 40-15, double set point. Williams clipped the sideline on a forehand crosscourt winner to save the first, but Kerber faltered on the second, missing a forehand down the line after serving to the Williams backhand and anticipating the direction of the return. Williams squandered two break points but she converted on her third when Kerber again erred off her normally trustworthy forehand down the line.
Williams held at 15 for 4-5 with a 116 MPH ace down the T, and so an increasingly vulnerable Kerber had her second chance to serve out the set in the tenth game. Williams bolted to 0-15 with a blazing backhand down the line winner, and followed with a forehand crosscourt winner to make it 0-30. An inside out forehand winner lifted Serena to 0-40 and the world No. 1 broke at love on a double fault from the German. It was 5-5. Williams held easily at 15 for 6-5, missing only one first serve in that game. Now she had captured five games in a row, and Kerber was serving to stay in the set at 5-6. Williams had a set point in the twelfth game but Kerber forced her into a mistake off the backhand. Kerber held on gamely for 6-6, and on they went to a tie-break.
That sequence was never in doubt for the favorite. Williams surged to 5-0 on the strength of two unstoppable first serves, a second serve kicker that Kerber could not handle and a pair of forced errors from Kerber. Kerber managed to make a forehand winner to make it 5-1, but Williams overwhelmed her adversary with too much pace on the next point, and then served a set closing ace to close out the tie-break, 7-1.
A set that had seemed certain to belong in the victory column of the German had been stolen by an audacious and unrelenting Williams, who kept going explosively for her shots until they started landing in. Kerber plainly had to start the second set strong, but she did not. At 30-40 in the opening game, Williams rolled a ball high and deep, daring Kerber to make an arduous shot. Kerber stepped around for an inside out forehand, but missed it wide. Williams had the break for 1-0. She promptly held at 15 for 2-0. Kerber saved a break point in the third game with a sparkling forehand crosscourt winner, and held on. Williams was undismayed by not achieving the double break lead, and she held at love for 3-1, missing only one first serve in the process.
The way Serena was serving now, she was almost certainly not going to lose. Although Kerber held easily for 2-3, Williams moved to 4-2 at the cost of only one point on her increasingly accurate and deadly serve. Kerber is a moody competitor with a tendency to get down on herself, but she did not lose a point on her serve in the seventh game, keeping a degree of pressure on her opponent. And yet, Williams sensed she was in control of her surroundings. She held at love for 5-3, serving an ace for 40-0 in that game. Williams advanced swiftly to 0-40 and triple match point in the following game. Kerber, however, demonstrated her professionalism, refusing to surrender despite where she stood.
Kerber obstinately fought off that trio of match points to reach deuce, but she was only delaying the inevitable. Williams unleashed one of her patented scorching returns to coax an error from a harried Kerber, and so Serena had arrived at match point for the fourth time. This time, she converted, lacing a piercing forehand down the line to draw an error from Kerber. Williams had prevailed 7-6 (1), 6-3, securing 12 of the last 16 games, performing with vigor and panache down the stretch.
Williams has now set up her summer exceedingly well by virtue of her win in Stanford. It was a crucial week for her in many ways. In the quarterfinals, she rescued herself commendably against Ana Ivanovic, the revitalized former world No. 1 who is returning to the top ten for the first time in five years. Ivanovic had returned serve magnificently in a three set win over Serena at the Australian Open in January, and her returns were every bit as good if not better this time around, particularly off the backhand side. She stood well inside the baseline, took the ball early, and treated Williams second serve as if it was a weakness. When she missed those crackling returns, they went narrowly long; when she connected, they were letter perfect.
Ivanovic was uncompromising with her aggression. She took the first set commandingly 6-2, dropped the second, went behind 1-3 in the third, and then collected three games in a row. Even after Williams regained the competitive edge and served for the match at 5-4, Ivanovic broke back before bowing 2-6, 6-3, 7-5 in the best match of the week and one of the most extraordinary duels of the year. Williams survived only by the skin of her teeth as Ivanovic pushed her to the hilt. In the semifinals, Williams cut down the entertaining and enterprising Andrea Petkovic 7-5, 6-0, securing eight games in a row at the close of the contest, conceding only ten points in an impeccable second set.
To be sure, Williams was not in peak form all the way through Stanford, and she has some tougher fields to confront in Montreal this week and Cincinnati after that. But her debut on the U.S. Open Series was a success. Williams seems certain to win some more tournaments in the critical weeks ahead, and the U.S. Open just might be one of them.
<Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for tennischannel.com since 2007. You can purchase Steve’s latest book “The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time” here.
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