Winner of back-to-back Bank of the West Classic titles in 2011 and 2012, Serena Williams takes to the tennis court in anger for the first time since her bizarre Wimbledon retirement. But the world no. 1 insists she’s healthy and feels good – which is bad news for her opening opponent, Karolina Pliskova.
Given that the last time we saw Williams on a tennis court, she was retiring from a doubles match which saw her barely able to hit the ball during the warm-up, much of the Stanford pre-tournament chatter has swirled around Williams’s health but the word from the Bank of the West Classic is that she is looking healthy and energized – in which case Pliskova should watch out.
‘I was really sick,’ Williams said of the viral illness which caused her to retire.
‘I didn't really feel great walking on the court. I couldn't even warm up for the match. I just got in the car right before the other match ended, got there, then got dressed and just walked on court.
‘I was really scared after the match. I didn't really realize how I felt until later, and it was just like... “Serena, take your time. You have the rest of your life to keep playing tennis hopefully.”’
But Williams was keen to clarify that she feels ‘really good’ and ready to play in Stanford, a tournament she has won twice in 2011 (defeating Marion Bartoli in the final) and 2012 (defeating Coco Vandeweghe). And although the field is packed with dangerous players, nobody really questions that Williams is the best in the world when she is healthy and focused; in that sense, she is still the overwhelming favourite to win the tournament.
It’s been an up-and-down season for Williams, who has underperformed at the Grand Slams – failing to reach a quarterfinal in any of the three played – but won titles in Brisbane, Rome and Miami. Her only non-Slam losses have been to Alize Cornet in the semifinals of Dubai, Jana Cepelova in the second round of Charleston – a truly bizarre loss, at a time when Williams confessed to feeling burned out – and a walkover Williams gave to Petra Kvitova in the quarterfinals of Madrid. To put it another way, there is no way that Williams is not heavily favoured against Pliskova in her opening Stanford match.
Pliskova, playing in Stanford for the first time, beat Kimiko Date-Krumm to reach the second round and set up the meeting with Williams. The Czech, ranked 45, has had a good season, reaching the finals in Pattaya City and Nurnberg, semifinals in Kuala Lumpur and quarterfinals in Monterrey, Bad Gastein and Istanbul, with her best win in terms of rankings coming against world no. 9 Angelique Kerber in Nurnberg – quite a different proposition from beating Williams.
Ably carving out a place for herself on the WTA Tour at the age of 22, Pliskova has yet to make a big impression at a big tournament but she is a confident baseliner with one element which elevates her game: A very strong serve. When Pliskova gets on a hot streak with her serve, she’s capable of big things but in Williams, she faces an opponent whose serve is technically flawless and capable of rendering any opponent irrelevant. Pliskova may put up a game fight, but Williams should reach the quarterfinals in short order.
Williams and Pliskova are scheduled on Centre Court in Stanford at 7pm (3am GMT)
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