Williams plays a winning hand


By Rick Eymer

Palo Alto Online Sports

Serena Williams is a champion once again. The rest of the WTA Tour should be weary of her presence this summer leading up to the U.S. Open in September. She has that gleam in her eye.

Williams captured her first tour title in over a year, and became the first American woman to win on U.S. soil since she won the Open in 2008, by defeating a worthy challenger in Marion Bartoli, 7-5, 6-1, Sunday in the championship match of the $721,000 Bank of the West Classic at Stanford's Taube Family Tennis Center.

"I take every tournament really serious and it's even more so now," Williams said after collecting the $111,000 prize.‭ "‬Having the opportunity to be healthy and be here,‭ ‬I'm just so grateful and definitely excited by it."

Williams hadn't won a tournament since last year's Wimbledon, having missed nearly a year due to a series of medical and physical issues. She's not taking anything lightly, and especially her 38th career championship, and a paycheck that sent her over $33 million for her career.

"It was a great crowd.‭ ‬Coming back, and hearing them clap when I walk out there are moments that I truly missed," she said.‭ "‬It's so awesome to be back and a part of those moments. I take pride in having fans come out,‭ ‬watch me and be supportive.‭ ‬It means so much."

It means a lot because she had to overcome blood clots in her lungs, two foot operations and a long rehab.

"Not everyone can be a star," she said. "I don't know if 'star' sounds full of myself, but I've worked hard for that title. So, yes, I say it and I take pride in it."

She's underestimating herself. With 13 Grand Slam titles to her credit, Williams could have called herself a superstar and no one would have twitched. She entered the event unseeded and ranked 169th in the world. On Monday morning she will break into the top 80.

"I hated those triple digits," she said. "I actually think it was funny. But now I want to get to single digits."

Williams played brilliant, inspired tennis over the last three days of the tournament, routing fifth-ranked Maria Sharapova in the quarterfinals, dominating 26th-ranked Sabine Lisicki in the semifinals and taking control against the ninth-ranked Bartoli in the finals.

Williams played in her third Bank of the West Classic. She did not get past the quarterfinal in her first two appearances. Williams took home her first title here, and third for the family. Venus Williams won twice, the last in 2004.

Bartoli beat Williams, the former world No. 1, in straight sets in the fourth round at Wimbledon last month. Bartoli, who reached her third Stanford final in the past four years (she didn't play last year), understood Williams was at a higher level this time around.

"I totally knew before the match started it was different than Wimbledon," said Bartoli, who won the title in 2009 and took home $60,700 on Sunday. "That was clear in my mind. She had four good wins coming into this match. Serena can improve from one day to the next. You can imagine from one month to the next. I'm sure she's going to tell you that she can play even better. And I'm sure that she will."

Williams, who recorded 11 aces and was successful on 71 percent of first serve points, said exactly that.

"I definitely held up physically and have an opportunity to be more fit," Williams said.‭ "‬Just being a little better,‭ ‬tighter and fit ... I'm going to work towards that.‭ ‬I'm glad because I have a lot of matches coming up."

Stanford was her third tournament since leaving the tennis world to deal with her issues, depression among them.

Williams is not only back, but ready to take on others along the way in the hard-court series this summer in Cincinnati and Toronto. She has her stamina again and her powerful serve and ground strokes are getting sharper every time she swings the racket.

"I was really happy because I put a lot of work into this week," Williams said.‭ "‬I definitely want to take this whole swing seriously.‭ ‬I do love playing on hard courts and this is a good time for me."

Bartoli was bothered by a bruise in the center of her right hand that began to swell in the middle of the opening set. She said the injury bothered her grip but wasn't the reason she lost.

The reason she lost was standing on the other side of the net.

"My movement on the court was great.‭ ‬I was moving well from side to side," Bartoli said. ‭ "‬My serve was good.‭ ‬My ground strokes were good enough to not allow her to take advantage of the rallies.‭ ‬But it was obviously not enough to win the match. Serena played better‭; ‬she really improved and beat some good opponents here."

In the doubles final, the No. 2-seeded team of Victoria Azarenka and Maria Kirilenko defeated the No. 1 duo of Liezel Huber and Lisa Raymond, 6-1, 6-3. The winners took home $35,500 with the runner-up squad earning $18,500.

Playing in their 11th tournament as a team, Azarenka and Kirilenko claimed their third title overall and second of the year since winning in Madrid. Since first pairing up at New Haven in 2007, Azarenka and Kirilenko reached the semifinals at last year's Bank of the West after not playing together for three years.

Azarenka and Kirilenko won three of their four matches in straight sets, allowing only 11 games combined over that stretch. Their toughest challenge came in the semifinals, outlasting the third-seeded duo of Julia Goerges and Barbora Zahlavova Strycova 4-6, 6-3, (10-5).

The experienced duo of Huber and Raymond came up short on Sunday. Huber, who joined Lindsay Davenport in capturing last year's Bank of the West Classic doubles crown, was bidding for her 45th career title while Raymond was trying for her 71st career championship.

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