By Rick Eymer
Palo Alto Online Sports
Serena Williams showed once and for all she's closing in on regaining her elite status on the WTA tour. Could another Grand Slam win be in the works sooner (as in September's U.S. Open) rather than later?
Williams beat second-seeded and fifth-ranked Maria Sharapova, 6-1, 6-3, in convincing fashion in the quarterfinals of the $721,000 Bank of the West Classic on Friday night before a sellout crowd at Stanford's Taube Family Tennis Center.
"I'm a better player this month than I was last month and the month before," Williams said. "I've put in a lot of work and hopefully it continues to pay off. There is no better reward for me than to be here."
Williams, recovered from right foot surgery, is playing in only her third tournament since winning her 13th career Grand Slam event at Wimbledon last year, and her first tournament on American soil since the 2009 U.S. Open. She was off the tour for 49 weeks due to the injury, falling out of the top 100.
"It's a great win for the hardcourt season," Williams said. "And this is a big tournament. It tells me I can play against the top 10."
Beating Sharapova, who reached the finals at Wimbledon last month, certainly puts Williams, who had six aces and 17 total winners, on the fast track to prominence.
"Her biggest strength is her power," Sharapova said. "You don't see so much of that in the top 10. It really makes her dangerous."
Sharapova, on her own comeback trail, just never got going against Williams in the battle of former world number one ranked players.
"I felt late and sluggish out there," said Sharapova, who had 23 unforced errors and eight winners. "When I had chances to change things around I couldn't do it."
The 169th-ranked Williams, who reached the semifinal here in 2008, has won the last six meetings with Sharapova, and is 7-2 against the Russian overall.
Sharapova last beat Williams in the finals at the 2004 WTA Championships.
While older sister Venus Williams has two Bank of the Classic titles to her credit, Serena has never even made it to the finals. The Williams' sisters, however, did win the 2009 doubles title.
With only two seeded players remaining in the main draw, Williams looks like a clear favorite to take home her first stuffed bear and the first-place money of $111,000.
Earlier in the day:
Once Dominika Cibulkova settled in as the aggressor, her game took off. The change came when she finally accepted Zeljko Krajan as her coach at the beginning of the 2010 grass season.
"He kept calling me to say he wanted to coach me because he thought I was a top-10 player," Cibulkova said after beating qualifier Marina Erakovic, 6-1, 6-1, in another quarterfinal. "I used to be a defensive player. Now if I try to play it safe it just doesn't work."
Cibulkova was a little reluctant at first. After all, it seemed like a big change. A few victories later, she started to believe.
"You need to have the ability to change your game," she said. "It was not easy. Now it seems to be showing up on the court. I felt confident after Wimbledon (where she reached the quarterfinal) and this is the best match I've played here so far."
Cibulkova, playing in her fourth consecutive Bank of the West Classic, reached the semifinal for the first time. She's reached two championship matches and six semis and is still looking for her first WTA Tour title.
"It's hard to believe I still haven't won a WTA title yet," she said.
Cibulkova plays friend and hitting partner Marion Bartoli in Saturday's 1 p.m. semifinal. The third-seeded Bartoli, who beat Ayumi Morita, 6-1, 0-0 (retired, injury) won the event two years ago and reached the finals three years ago.
"I did not want the match to end this way," Bartoli said. "It's never fun to play against someone who is injured. I thought she played two great matches in the first couple of rounds and I wish her a speedy recovery."
Sabine Lisicki knocked off her second straight seeded opponent, beating fifth-seeded Agnieszka Radwanska of Poland 7-6(4), 2-6, 6-2.
Lisicki, who will meets Williams/Sharapova at 7 p.m. Saturday, was a semifinalist at Wimbledon and has improved her ranking to 26th after being No. 218 in March.
"I'm looking forward to the match," Lisicki said. "I love competing in the big matches. I have nothing to lose."
Sharapova beat Lisicki in the semis at Wimbledon.
"Coming from grass to hardcourt is always a challenge," Lisicki said. "It comes down to who plays the best that given day."
Last year, Lisicki missed five months with a left ankle injury. She says she has more endurance now than before her injury.
"I'm much better than I was before the injury," she said. "I've had to focus on so many aspects of my game. Last year I couldn't even walk. Now I feel I can rely on my serve when I need it at crucial moments."
Lisicki recorded 14 aces in the match to Radwanska's seven.