Palo Alto Weekly

Sports - July 29, 2011

Former No. 1s making successful comebacks

Sharapova, Serena Williams are battling to regain the elite stature they once enjoyed on the WTA Tour

by Rick Eymer

No matter what happens the rest of the summer, one thing is certain: Serena Williams is on her way back. The former world No. 1 made that clear with a swift, resounding victory over Anastasia Rodionova earlier in the week at the $721,000 Bank of the West Classic.

Maria Sharapova, also a former No. 1 player, is a year into her comeback from right shoulder surgery and she's on the verge of reclaiming her place on top of the tennis world.

Sharapova entered the week ranked fifth, and reaching Friday night's quarterfinals won't hurt a bit.

Williams is still in her infancy as far as recovering from a serious right foot injury that kept her off the court for nearly a year. She was favored to beat Maria Kirilenko late Thursday afternoon, which would mean a highly-anticipated date in the quarters with Sharapova at 8 p.m.

Williams,? ?who turns? ?30? ?in September,? ?is playing just her third tournament since winning last year's Wimbledon singles championship.

It's her first tournament on American soil since the? ?2009? ?U.S.? ?Open,? ?in which she reached the semifinals before losing to Kim Clijsters.

Williams needed only 47 minutes to dispose of Rodionova, 6-0, 6-0, in her first-round match at Stanford's Taube Family Tennis Center.

"I felt good," Williams said. "I want to be more consistent and I think I did that by not going for too much and not doing too much."

She recorded six service aces, did not have a double fault and won all 17 of her first-serve points in front of a full house.

Sharapova's 6-2, 2-6, 6-4 win over Daniela Hantuchova also was played before a large crowd. She needed over two hours to gain the victory over Hantuchova, who reached the fourth round of the French Open and the third round at Wimbledon earlier this season.

"Overall I had a good first set and then it kind of went away," Sharapova said. "The things I was doing well in the first set I wasn't doing. She had all the confidence in the world and all the momentum going into the third set."

Whomever Sharapova plays Friday will prove a tough chore. She lost to both of them the last time she played Williams and Kirilenko, who is one of her best friends.

"You can never rest against Serena," Sharapova said. "She hasn't played in quite a while but she's still a great competitor. At the end of the day she has 13 Grand Slam titles and I have three. That says a lot. Maria can produce great tennis and beat the top players."

Former Bank of the West Classic champion and third seed Marion Bartoli, fifth-seeded Agnieszka Radwanska and eighth-seeded Dominika Cibulkova all reached the quarterfinals with victories on Wednesday.

I felt great. I love this tournament; it's a great way for me to start back," Bartoli said. "I lost to Rebecca (Marino) last year in Quebec, so it was good for me to take revenge. I really felt like I was moving well. I was hitting the ball well for having three weeks off. I'm really pleased and know that I still must improve a few parts of my game here and there."

Williams took all the drama out of her match with Rodionova the instant she established her serve and showed a consistent ground game.

"It was me being focused," Williams said. "I've personally never taken this much time off. It's totally different than at any other time after a surgery. Maybe this is teaching me to be patient."

Williams finds herself ranked? ?169th in the world after being away so long. Sharapova was out of the top 100 last year before reaching the Bank of the West finals.

"I always said if I play my best no one can beat me," Williams said. "Hopefully I can get back to that level. No. 1 is great but I really want to play well."

Williams, despite a 49-week absence from competitive tennis, remains one of the toughest players on the WTA Tour with? ?479? ?career victories,? ?37? ?career singles titles,? ?including? ?13? ?Grand Slam titles,? ?and? ?20? ?doubles titles.

?"?She's coming back and she's winning again,?" Kirilenko said after beating sixth-seeded Julia Goerges of Germany,? ?6-2,? ?6-3.? "?I really have to be focused every minute and ready from the first point.?"

?Only older sister Venus Williams, with 43, owns more career titles among active players. They have combined to win 12 doubles titles in Grand Slam events and own two gold medals for winning the doubles title in each the 2000 and 2008 Olympics.

Sharapova has defeated Hantuchova, who has been ranked as high as No. 5, eight times in nine meetings. It was their first meeting in three years.

Hantuchova fell to 8-45 against the world's top five, although she owns three wins over the elite players this season.

"Leading 2-0 in the third set, that next game was crucial," Hantuchova said. "She went on that unbelievable run and that's where it changed a little bit."

Sharapova took the next four games to re-establish herself and carried that forward for the victory.

"Even though I wasn't playing my best tennis, I still felt like I had so many chances," Hantuchova said. "I think I had 12 break points on two of those. It was a good fight. Unfortunately, I had to face someone like that in the second round."

Sharapova has changed things within her team and equipment. She's finally seeing the success.

"I had to make some tough choices over the last year," she said. "Little by little I'm seeing the payoff."

Sharapova improved to 9-0 in three-set matches this year.

"The things you guys notice," Sharapova said. "I wasn't aware of that. Winning is the most important thing so I guess that's good."

Semifinals will be Saturday at 1 p.m. and 7 p.m., with the singles championship set for Sunday at noon. The winner earns $111,000, with the runner-up nabbing $60,700. The doubles final will follow at 2:30 p.m.

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