WTA's stop in Stanford sets stage for unpredictable summer
If anything summarized the first hard-court tournament of the women's summer circuit, it was the sight of a victorious Dominika Cibulkova flat on her back, rising to her feet, then greeting her ecstatic father, who rushed out of the stands to embrace her on court.
Not exactly how the forecasts saw it going.
The Bank of the West Classic in Stanford, Calif., looked to be the perfect stage for Agnieszka Radwanska to cast her hypnotic spell, and for the up-and-coming American women to establish some early momentum for the U.S. Open. If the lasting mood was one of uncertainty, that seems to be the trend on the women's tour of late, from Serena Williams' shocking exit at Wimbledon to a lingering hip injury that has forced Maria Sharapova to pull out of both Stanford and the Rogers Cup in Toronto.
While we await that first matchup between Williams and the Sharapova-Jimmy Connors connection, here's a rundown of the key participants at Stanford:
Dominika Cibulkova: Never known for her stellar performances under pressure, Cibulkova took the admirable step of admitting to her weaknesses during an interview session. She talked about "thinking too much," coming up short on "the mental side" and needing several weeks to get over being humiliated by Radwanska 6-0, 6-0 in the Sydney final in January.
Considering that Cibulkova was about to play Radwanska in the final, it seemed she was setting the stage for her own demise. But as soon as she won her first game, for 1-1 in the first set, Cibulkova's belief kicked in. She held it throughout the remainder of a two-hour, 30-minute struggle in oppressive heat. Frustrated by her inability to cash in four match points in the final game, she finally uncorked a cross-court backhand winner to earn her third title on tour -- and undoubtedly the most satisfying.
Agnieszka Radwanska: Often sullen in defeat, Radwanska didn't seem bothered by this one. She'd been struggling with hard-court adjustments all week, felt like "balls were flying all over the place" and paved the way for Cibulkova's victory by serving at just 52 percent in the final. But Radwanska charmed many fans with her touch, variety and unorthodox defensive posture, and her presence was invaluable in the wake of pre-tournament withdrawals by Sharapova, Marion Bartoli and Sabine Lisicki.
Jamie Hampton: By far the most impressive American entry, reaching the semifinals before being outclassed by Radwanska. This was the first time she'd been seeded anywhere (No. 4), and after enduring a regrettable bit of scheduling -- the tournament opened on Monday and she didn't play her first match until Thursday -- she displayed her usual brand of lively, inspiring tennis. Watching Hampton unleash that whiplike forehand is one of the more compelling sights in the women's game.
Madison Keys: Wandering the Stanford campus before her first match, she wondered how her life might have unfolded had she attended college. It was a passing fancy ("I'm pretty happy where I am"), but Keys' tennis education is a work in progress. She lost her second-round match to 26-year-old Russian Vera Dushevina, who hadn't won a tour-level match all year, and was probably surprised to see her power returned in kind. Keys committed 36 unforced errors in the match, and in a scene reminiscent of her losses at the French Open (Monica Puig) and Sydney (Li Na), she was an emotional wreck afterward. Post-match tears are perfectly explainable at times, but the insiders' consensus is that Keys, still just 18, has to toughen up a bit.
Varvara Lepchenko: Recognition remains in short supply for the Uzbekistan-raised girl who was granted American citizenship two years ago, but that will change if she improves on her No. 37 ranking and knocks off a top player or two. She played extremely well against Radwanska in the quarterfinals, taking a 3-2 lead in the third set before going down 7-6 (2), 3-6, 6-3 in one of the tournament's better matches. Her main goal is to get inside the top 32 and earn a seed at the U.S. Open.
Christina McHale: Such a glowing prospect a year ago, the 21-year-old seems a bit lost, to the point where she's no longer in the conversation with Keys, Hampton and Sloane Stephens as the top young Americans. Lacking confidence on court and in constant search of the best coaching setup, she has won just one match since May while sinking to No. 93 in the rankings. She didn't have the best draw at Stanford (Urszula Radwanska), but the scores (6-1, 6-3) spoke to a player out of sorts.
Michelle Larcher de Brito: Mentioned only because she scored that shocking upset of Sharapova at Wimbledon. She admirably fought her way through the Stanford qualifying but lost in straight sets to Lepchenko in the first round.
Sorana Cirstea: A semifinalist at Stanford last year, she reached that stage again before losing to Cibulkova. Most interesting, though, was her recollection of a wintertime visit to Las Vegas, where she works out annually with famed trainer Gil Reyes and the coolest of all tennis couples, Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf. Cirstea idolized Graf as a youngster and remains in awe, telling Matt Cronin of Tennisreporters.net, "She's the most incredible athlete I've ever seen. Forty-five minutes [hitting] with her is like two hours with someone else. If she were healthy, she could play on tour easily."
Coco Vandeweghe: Returning to the scene of her finest moment on tour -- reaching last year's Stanford final against Serena Williams -- she was hoping to earn a wild-card spot into the main draw. She could understand berths issued to Daniela Hantuchova and two former Stanford players who recently turned pro, Mallory Burdette and Nicole Gibbs, but she wasn't thrilled to be bypassed in favor of IMG client Ajla Tomljanovic, a promising player from Croatia, for the fourth wild card (IMG owns the Stanford tournament). Vandeweghe, 21, managed to qualify and win her first-round match, but in the second round -- her fifth match in five days -- she developed back issues and lost to Cirstea. (Tomljanovic lost to Stefanie Voegele 6-4, 6-0 in the first round.)
The Stanford connection: Burdette, 22, got a bad break, drawing Francesca Schiavone right off the bat, and looked a bit nervous in a first-round defeat. Gibbs, 20, playing her first WTA event as a pro, fared much better. The two-time NCAA singles champion battled Hampton on even terms in the second round before losing on her home court 7-5, 6-7 (5), 6-3 before a boisterous crowd that included several members of the Stanford football team.
Samantha Stosur: It's remarkable, and little bit depressing, to realize that Stosur hasn't won a singles tournament since defeating Williams at the 2011 U.S. Open. We've come to know, however, that an off-form Stosur is decidedly vulnerable. Committing what she called an "inexcusable" 10 double-faults, she lost to Olga Govortsova 6-2, 6-4 in the first round. No disgrace -- the streaky Govortsova now has nine wins against top-20 opponents -- but certainly a letdown for the world's No. 13 player.
Daniela Hantuchova: Gone in the second round, but a big story after announcing her doubles partnership with Martina Hingis for this week's Southern California Open, the Rogers Cup and the U.S. Open. This will mark the initial stage of Hingis' comeback (she remains coy about venturing into singles), and as Hantuchova told Tennis.com, "She was always my idol growing up, so I said, 'Why don't we give it a try?' We don't have anything to lose, and we just want to have fun on court. She thought about it for a while, and here we are." Both women were born in Slovakia, and Hingis' last tour-level doubles match was alongside Hantuchova at the 2007 U.S. Open. Most notable of all: After all this time, and so many twists and turns, Hingis (at 32) is just a year older than Serena Williams.