By Rick Eymer
Palo Alto Online Sports
Maria Sharapova erased all doubts concerning her return to tennis following a shoulder injury by reaching the finals of Wimbledon this year. She hopes to carry that success through the summer U.S. Open Series competition, beginning with her appearance in the Bank of the West Classic next week at Taube Tennis Family Center on the campus of Stanford University.
Ranked fifth in the world, Sharapova will play her first match at Stanford on Wednesday night at 7 p.m. against an opponent to be determined. The draw will be held Friday at the Stanford Shopping Center, a nice touch for Sharapova, who lists Peet's Coffee among her favorite places.
The Classic opens Monday with matches starting at 11 a.m. The qualifying tournament begins Saturday at 10 a.m. and continues through Sunday, with matches free and open to the public.
A former world No. 1, Sharapova is currently at her highest ranking since returning from surgery in early 2009 after a nine-month layoff. She fell out of the top 100 during her recovery period.
"Even after Wimbledon I feel like I can make improvements," Sharapova said in teleconference this week. "I always feel like I can be one step quicker, that I can improve moving on the court and being more aggressive. I can take a few more balls in the air."
The winner of 23 WTA Tour singles title, Sharapova returns to Stanford after losing in last year's final, 6-4, 6-1, to world No. 4 Victoria Azarenka. For Azarenka, the first-place prize money of $107,000 was a career pay day. Sharapova would like to cash in this time around.
"I played some great matches during last summer," Sharapova said. "But it was not enough for the U.S. Open. That level didn't come through when it mattered most. That happens."
Sharapova hopes to create a different atmosphere this summer as she looks ahead to the final Grand Slam event of the season. She last won a Grand Slam with the 2008 Australian Open and last won the U.S. Open title in 2006. She has three Grand Slam titles to her credit, including the 2004 Wimbledon crown.
"I find myself in a rush this year after taking a break following Wimbledon," Sharapova said. "I see the U.S. Open approaching and I want to prepare for that."
Sharapova already owns one WTA title this year, winning in Rome. She also reached the finals at the Sony Ericsson Open in Miami and advanced to the French Open semifinals in May.
In addition to Sharapova and Azarenka, Wimbledon semifinalist Sabine Lisicki is also entered in the Bank of the West Classic.
Thirteen-time Grand Slam champion Serena Williams, 2011 French Open semifinalist and 2009 Bank of the West Classic titlist Marion Bartoli, former world No. 1 Ana Ivanovic, and world No. 10 Samantha Stosur are also in the field.
Williams is returning from an injury, though Sharapova didn't think it was wise to offer any advice.
"She's an incredible champion," Sharapova said. "She's come back from injuries before. She has it all figured out."
Sharapova broke onto the national stage with her win over Williams in the championship match of the 2004 Wimbledon tournament, but acknowledges there's a slight discrepancy in their head-to-head meetings. Williams (478-103 overall) leads their series, 6-2, and has won the previous five meetings.
"I love playing her but I don't have a great record against her," Sharapova said. "I would like to change that. I would like to play her at some point this summer."
Sharapova (401-98 on the WTA Tour) skipped the Stanford event until two years ago. Now she's hooked.
"I love the fact it's a younger, college crowd," she said. "It's a lot more intimate place than a lot of other tournaments we play. It feels like the crowd is right there watching you."
Last year's runnerup finish also sparked Sharapova's successful summer run.
"I usually train in the Los Angeles area before going to Stanford," Sharapova said. "I love playing in tournaments that are five hours or less away. It feels homey and I can have my own car to drive around."
Sharapova already has had her share of setbacks this year, withdrawing from tournaments with a viral illness and an ear infection. Those things are nothing compared to the constant training.
"You almost put it on autopilot," she said. "It's a lot of work, especially when you're on tour. It seems easier to go to the tournaments, when you aren't practicing three or four hours a day. Those days, the days between tournaments, are a lot tougher for me mentally. There are days when I feel mentally out of it. Recovery is important. You have to keep a good balance."
Also included in the field will be two former top 10-ranked players, Daniela Hantuchova and Kimiko Date-Krumm.
The Bank of the West Classic will also welcome three additional top-20 players including No. 13 Agnieszka Radwanska, No. 16 Julia Goerges, and No. 19 Yanina Wickmayer.
Helping strengthen the field will be this year's Wimbledon quarterfinalist, Dominika Cibulkova, who has been granted a wildcard into the tournament. The native of Slovakia recently impressed the crowds at the All England club by defeating world No. 1 and top seed Caroline Wozniacki en route to the quarterfinals. Cibulkova had previously faced Wozniacki in the 2010 US Open quarterfinals, and also reached the French Open semifinals in 2009.
With the return of Cibulkova to the 2011 Bank of the West Classic, the tournament field now boasts eight of the world's top 20 WTA players. Cibulkova is currently ranked No. 20.
A truly global event, the 20 players on the 2011 Bank of the West Classic's acceptance list hail from 17 different countries. Now in its 41st year, the women's only tournament features a 28-player singles draw as well as a 16-team doubles draw with total prize money of $721,000.
Tickets can be purchased by calling the box office at 866-WTA-TIXS (866-982-8497) or by logging on to www.BankoftheWestClassic.com. Single-session tickets for the tournament's opening round start at just $26.
2011 BANK OF THE WEST CLASSIC
SCHEDULE OF PLAY
At Taube Family Tennis Center
Saturday -- Qualifying Round 1, 10 a.m. (free, open to public)
Sunday -- Qualifying Round 2 (free, open to public)
Monday -- Qualifying Round 3, 10 a.m.; first-round matches, 1 p.m. and 7 p.m.
Tuesday -- First-round matches, 1 p.m. and 7 p.m.
Wednesday -- Second-round matches, 11 a.m. and 7 p.m.
Thursday -- Second-round matches, 11 a.m. and 7 p.m.
Friday, July 29 -- Quarterfinal matches, noon and 8 p.m.
Saturday, July 30 -- Semifinal matches, 1 p.m. and 7 p.m.
Sunday, July 31 -- Singles final, noon; doubles final, 2:30 p.m.
Note: All matches are subject to change