By Rick Eymer
Palo Alto Online Sports
Stanford junior Nicole Gibbs expects to be nervous. After all, she'll be playing her idol. And until now, her biggest thrill was serving as a ballgirl at a tennis exhibition in Cleveland.
Gibbs gets the chance to get nervous because she beat Thailand's Noppawan Lertcheewakarn, 6-4, 6-4, in the first round of the Bank of the West Classic at Stanford's Taube Family Tennis Center on Tuesday.
Mallory Burdette, Gibbs' doubles partner, also advanced with a surprise 2-6, 7-5, 6-4 victory over Great Britain's top-ranked player Anne Keothavong, who is headed to the Olympics.
Gibbs' next opponent? None other than reigning Wimbledon champion Serena Williams, the Classic's top seed and the world's fourth-ranked player.
"I am so in awe of her. She is one of my idols," Gibbs said of playing Williams. "It will be such an honor to share the court with her. I grew up watching the Williams sisters. For a while they were American tennis."
Gibbs said that as a 12-year-old in Cleveland she found herself serving as ballgirl to Serena Williams.
"It was just random," Gibbs said. "I got to hit with her for five minutes. That was the best experience of my life at the time. For me, this is already a dream come true in a way, to be on the same court with a player that accomplished."
Gibbs has accomplished quite a bit herself since playing at the top of the singles ladder for the Cardinal women's tennis team. She won both the NCAA singles and doubles title and then joined the USTA-sponsored college team that plays in summer pro circuit events.
She won the Colorado International title last weekend after first having to qualify for the main draw. That led to some added confidence when she took the court against Lertcheewakarn.
"That was perfect," she said after playing eight singles matches and five doubles matches in eight days. "I played a lot of players who were at the same level as the girl I played today. During the NCAAs I was tested a lot in every match and faced every competitive situation possible. That all happened."
Playing Williams, though, is taking it to a whole different level. Gibbs hasn't played many Top 100 players, let alone arguably one of the best who ever took the court.
"I have been competing better than I ever have in my life," Gibbs said. "This added a level of excitement for me. Knowing I could play Serena gave me the incentive to stay in points."
Will she be able to calm her nerves facing Williams?
"I'm going to be nervous, there is no question about that," Gibbs said. "It's a great experience to have. I just hope I can present myself as competitive."
Gibbs, who will be majoring in Economics, said she won't be playing any college tournaments during the fall in order to pursue ranking points and test the waters. As of now she's committed to playing for Stanford in the spring.
For Stanford women's tennis coach Lele Forood, it was a tremendous day.
"It was a very fun day for me," she said. "We always project what stage of development our players are and today was validation that college players are not that far behind."
Burdette played her first match since the NCAA tournament ended. Gibbs played in her first matches of the summer last week in Colorado.
"When you play, arguably, the best player in the world you are going to see what it is all about," Forood said. "You get to see what you need to do better. That's the neat thing about summer, you get exposure to the next level."
Williams, meanwhile, credited winning last year's Classic title as the start of her resurgence.
"This is where I felt like it began, so I wanted to get here," Williams said. "I have never felt this fit, this good, in my life. I won here and had a great summer. I got really solid results."
While Gibbs plays the sixth-ranked Williams, Burdette, who had older sisters Lindsay and Erin in the stands rooting her on, next will take on 10th-ranked and second-seeded Marion Bartoli on Thursday. Before that, she and Gibbs will play their first doubles match later on Wednesday against the No. 3 seeded-duo of Natalie Grandin and Vladimira Uhlirova.
"I like Marion, she seems like a nice player," Burdette said. "I look forward to playing her. It will be quite an experience."
Burdette had a moment of disbelief when she looked at the qualifying tournament and did not see her name on it.
"I called Lele to find out why I wasn't in it," Burdette said. "That's when I found out I was in the main draw. I was not expecting it."
In other matches Tuesday, eighth-seeded Marina Erakovic of New Zealand topped Slovakian and 2011 NCAA champion Jana Juricova, 6-2, 6-2; Urszula Radwanska of Poland downed Eleni Daniilidou of Greece, 3-6, 6-3, 6-4; qualifier Erika Sema of Japan defeated American lucky loser Alexa Glatch, 6-2, 6-3; Sorana Cirstea of South Africa beat American Vania King, 7-5, 6-4; and lucky loser Saisai Zheng of China advanced when Japan's Ayumi Morita retired with a lower back injury.
2012 BANK OF THE WEST CLASSIC
11 a.m. -- Michelle Larcher De Brito vs. Chanelle Scheepers
followed by: Yanina Wickmayer vs. Heather Watson
followed by (not before 3 p.m.): Serena Williams vs. Nicole Gibbs
followed by: Marina Erakovic/Heather Watson vs. Raquel Kops-Jones/Abigail Spears
7 p.m. -- Michael Chang vs. Pete Sampras (exhbition)
followed by (not before 8 p.m.): Coco Vandeweghe vs. Jelena Jankovic
1:30 p.m. -- Yung-Jan Chan/Hao-Ching Chan vs. Dominika Cibulkova/Janette Husarova
followed by (not before 2:30 p.m.): Jarmila Gajdosova/Vania King vs. Sorana Cirstea/Annne Keothavong
followed by (not before 5 p.m.): Mallory Burdette/Nicole Gibbs vs. Natalie Grandin/Vladimira Uhlirova