Our contributor Karen Helf is in Stanford this week and we're glad to feature her reports straight from the WTA grounds of the Bank of the West Classic.
Friday, July 22nd was another day of clear skies and warm temperatures on the Stanford University Campus. This day began with promise for the eight remaining players in the Bank of the West Classic singles draw. They had taken vastly different paths to this moment. Cici Bellis was the wildcard, Johanna Konta, Misaki Doi and Coco Vandeweghe were climbing the rankings, Alison Riske looking for a chance to shine and veteran Venus Williams, the top seed. The player age range was from 17 to 36 years young.
Johanna Konta defeats Saisai Zheng 6-2, 4-6, 6-3
This would be the only three-set match of the day and the most balanced in style and competition. Konta came out strong, taking the first set 6-2. She won 79% of her first serve points, including three aces. She applied pressure, immediately capturing a break in Zheng’s first service game. Konta held all of her service games.
The second set was a rollercoaster ride. Both players struggled to hold serve, with seven service breaks in all. They traded powerful grounders and Konta was coming in to take time away from Zheng. However, Konta’s service game had fallen off par. Zheng delivered a strong service return performance, taking the set 6-4. Post-match, Konta attributed the set loss to the elevated play of Zheng, rather than the effects of the heat of the day.
Konta began the third set by breaking Zheng immediately. While Konta’s service games were consistently longer, she kept up her intensity and fought hard to close. Konta held off five of six break points. She closed the match by breaking Zheng to advance.
Dominika Cibulkova defeats Misaki Doi 7-5, 6-0
This match contained a dramatic turn of events. In the first set, Cibulkova could not find her serve and she was consistently hitting her groundstrokes long. At one point, she was down 3-0.
Cibulkova’s team provided consistent vocal encouragement. "Domi" was heard throughout the match and something started to click. She and Doi traded breaks for next five service games. Dominika was visibly inspired when she broke Doi’s fourth service game. From that point on, she continued to gain momentum.
Dominika was dancing like "Ali" on the baseline and vocally pumping herself up. First pumps were common from that point on, as she won the next five service games and the set. Doi visibly faded, as Cibulkova surged. In contrast, Dominika kept her faith, despite the early service breaks.
As the second set began, Doi was clearly deflated. She could not recover mentally to stay in the match. Dominika found her service game, now winning 73% of first serve points. She successfully fought off two break points in the set. Cibulkova attributed her win to staying committed to fighting, rather than playing her best tennis.
Alison Riske advances over Coco Vandeweghe 6-3, 0-1
This was the outcome no-one ever wants to see. During Coco’s first service game in the second, set she took a nasty tumble at the baseline. Coco remained on her back for a long period, receiving on-court treatment. She sustained what appeared to be an ankle injury and was unable to continue. Let’s hope this does not impact her ability to participate in the Rio Olympics.
But, let’s rewind to the first set. Alison Riske delivered a strong performance. She was the underdog ranked No. 78 versus Coco ranked at No. 35. Before Coco’s fall, it appeared as though an upset was in the cards. Alison came out with an aggressive game plan and used intelligent placement to challenge Vandeweghe.
They went toe-to-toe, both holding serve to 2-2. Then Riske broke Coco to go up 4-2. Coco, clearly on edge, expressed her frustration with verbal and non-verbal gestures throughout the set. Riske earned the first set, serving well and absorbing pace effectively.
Venus Williams defeats Catherine Bellis 6-4, 6-1
Americans, Venus Williams and Cici Bellis opened the night session, spanning the spectrum of career stages. Bellis just starting her journey at 17 years old and icon Williams reaching for new achievements to add to her distinguished career. Each player enjoying the ride for different reasons.
Both players demonstrated great presence. Bellis appeared composed, eager to fight and did not show signs of being overwhelmed by the occasion. Bellis started with a break of Williams' first service game. She traded baseline blows with Venus and was going for her shots.
Venus took the break in stride and immediately broke back. She remained composed, letting experience guide her thru the rest of her service games as she found her rhythm. Cici kept fighting and held onto her service games, as Venus was reaching for a higher gear. Venus eventually broke Bellis' fifth service game to capture the set 6-4.
Bellis faced the second set composed and still fighting. Venus was now making classic shots, hitting lines and serving in the 115 mph range. Bellis took in the occasion well and kept her emotions in check. The bar was just too high.
Post-match, a vibrant Venus expressed gratitude for the win, the occasion and opportunities that she continues to have in her career. Venus also spoke in appreciation of a "feisty" Bellis, expressing excitement to see this quality in the young American.
Saturday's semifinal matches begin at 2PM Pacific.
Day Session: Johanna Konta vs. Dominika Cibulkova
Night Session: Venus Williams vs. Alison Riske