A single event answered all the questions about Serena Williams. It was right in my backyard -- the Bank of the West tournament at Stanford, Calif. -- and I was able to get an extended, up-close look at a player whose legacy will one day be legendary.
We wanted to know how Serena would match up against a known mainstay of mental toughness; she routed Maria Sharapova, 6-1, 6-3. We wanted to see how she'd handle a big-serving proponent of modern-day power; she blew Sabine Lisicki off the court, 6-1, 6-2. We wondered if she'd be capable of avenging that Wimbledon loss to Marion Bartoli, one of the few players who actually savors Serena's pace; that was the Stanford final, a 7-5, 6-1 breeze.
I suppose some other matchups would be just as intriguing for Williams as the summer grinds on: the gallant Francesca Schiavone, the big-match toughness of Li Na, the formidable power of Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova. But to me, there's only one truly necessary element to Serena's future right now: a rematch with Kim Clijsters at the U.S. Open. (And isn't it strange that the world's No. 1-ranked player, Caroline Wozniacki, never seems to come up in these conversations?)
No one will forget their last meeting in that setting. It was the 2009 semifinals, the site of Serena's epic meltdown against lineswoman Shino Tsurubuchi. The match ended with that horrific scene, Clijsters went on to win the title, and Serena's reputation -- long characterized by on-court sportsmanship and fair play -- took a massive hit.
Clijsters has been a complete mystery on tour this year -- most recently she pulled out of the San Diego hardcourt event -- but everyone knows she's capable of walking into a major, virtually out of nowhere, and stealing the show. Come to think of it, that pretty much describes Serena's place in the game, as well. Imagine that: two veritable phantoms playing under the lights at Arthur Ashe Stadium, with so much on the line. That's my dream matchup for this year's Open.
How the Stanford tournament played out for some other key participants:
Ana Ivanovic: She'll always rank high on the popularity charts and she gives thoughtful, worthwhile interviews, but her game is just a mess. First off, why would anyone hire a coach (Nigel Sears) whose previous job was coaching the top women in England? Or anyone in England? It's not good enough to say, "We've really got some interesting young prospects." They've been saying that in the U.K. for years.
It's always about changes for Ivanovic; new this, new that. She also has a new trainer, although it's actually her old trainer, Scott Byrnes, who left Victoria Azarenka's camp after Wimbledon to rejoin Ana's team. Ivanovic said she was "nervous" playing in front of her reorganized team at Stanford -- the initial hardcourt venture of the summer for so many players on tour -- but a 6-3, 7-5 first-round loss to Ayumi Morita? That just shouldn't happen.
Victoria Azarenka: She made a few strides on the public-relations front. Known to be reluctant, even resentful of the postmatch interview process, Azarenka said she's been working hard on her public image.
"I was a 15- and 16-year-old girl who was always independent, and my parents were not around much, and I didn't realize [media obligations were] important. I just didn't know how to do it," said Azarenka, now 22 and ranked fourth in the world. "I regret that stuff a lot, because I could have had people getting to know me better, not starting now. I'm a very entertaining person if you get to know me better."
For those lucky enough to have seen Azarenka in a cheery, accommodating mood, this is very good news. Not so good: Given a bye into the second round, the top seed quickly lost to New Zealand's Marina Erakovic, 4-6, 7-5, 6-2. Erakovic has been playing well on the ITF circuit and seems to be on the rise, but this was a terrible loss for Azarenka.
"It was one zillion unforced errors," she said afterward. "I lost it as much as she won it."
One match later, Erakovic was thrashed by Dominika Cibulkova, 6-1, 6-1.
Agnieszka Radwanska: For months now, she's been hearing from people suggesting she cut professional ties with her father, Robert, the latest in a long line of arrogant, unreasonable tennis parents. After Radwanska lost to Maria Sharapova at the French Open, Robert blasted his daughter for "showing so little resistance mentally," adding that "she will never win anything big if she plays like that" and that "she needs a psychiatrist, psychologist, something like that."
At Stanford, where she won two matches before being dispatched by Lisicki, Radwanska said her father didn't make the trip and may no longer travel with her on a regular basis.
"Sometimes it's good to have a break, especially from someone you've been working with for 17 years," she said. "Sometimes it's just too much."
Marion Bartoli: There aren't many players in tennis, men or women, who have overcome so many obstacles to reach the absolute limits of their potential. Bartoli isn't built like Maria Kirilenko, and she doesn't have a really cool dad like ... (let me think on that one for a moment). But she has emerged as one of the most fearless, hard-hitting women on tour, and she's a delightful person off the court, as well.
It was Walter Bartoli who got his daughter in trouble with the French federation, adopting eccentric training methods and resisting all avenues of convention, but the two of them make a formidable pair just now -- and thanks to Marion's strong performance at the French Open, she has gained acceptance from the French public.
"Things have really changed there," said Bartoli, now ranked No. 9. "I received really good press and everyone in the street recognized me, from the supermarket to the gas station. People said they were crying at how good my matches were at Wimbledon. I don't know if I'm an international celebrity, but it's really a blessing."
So what the hell happened at Wimbledon, where Bartoli got into a fierce struggle with Flavia Pennetta and literally kicked her parents out of the stands?
"I was feeling sick, my head was burning, I lost the first set, the games were taking forever," she said. "I'm not a bad person. It just felt it was the only way to express my frustration, just deal with it better on my own. Afterward, I was having trouble just trying to walk, and my mom was there to take my bags to the locker room. There is no problem."
Maria Sharapova: Let's just drop the "mentally tough" bit right now. She'll always have that quality, but it's going to be irrelevant if she can't resolve her serving crisis. We're way past the point of physical issues -- her shoulder surgery is two years in the past -- and even her apologists can't get away with saying, "Bad night -- get 'em next week." Sharapova's serve is a joke right now.
Picture the scene: Serena and Sharapova are finally playing each other, for only the third time in four years, before a sold-out crowd at Stanford. "It's exciting for me and exciting for the sport," Maria said earlier in the week, eyeing the prospect of meeting Williams. "This is what women's tennis really needs. It's something men's tennis doesn't lack. They have so much excitement within that top four or five."
Right off the bat, Sharapova has her service broken. And then again, for a 3-0 Williams lead. And then again, for 5-0. The first set of the quarterfinal concludes at 6-1 as Sharapova, mindlessly blasting her second serve with full power, double-faults three times. As the second set begins, we see two more double faults; that makes five over the stretch of nine points. What is this, amateur hour?
When you're playing Serena, or any top player, it's not a completely crazy idea to go for your second serve. Bartoli stunningly advanced the theory by hitting second serves in the 97-108 mph range against Williams, often to her benefit. Asked by Matt Cronin to explain her own approach, Sharapova replied, "You feel more confident when you're going for it, first or second serve, than when you're just pushing it in. If you serve at 70 mph, there's a very small chance you're going to win the point."
All true. But when a set is going so badly against you, it hardly makes sense to just blast away, hoping for the best. This match became a cakewalk for Serena, and half the time she didn't even have to raise her racket.