STANFORD, Calif. (AP) — Serena Williams smashed one final serve, dropped her racket, clenched her hands together and raised her arms in triumph.
At long last, a champion again.
After blood clots in her lugs and two foot operations threatened her career for nearly a year, Williams captured her first tournament title since returning with a 7-5, 6-1 win over Marion Bartoli in the Bank of the West Classic final Sunday.
“Coming back and hearing the claps when I walk out there are moments that I truly missed,” Williams said. “It’s so awesome to be back and to be a part of those moments. Not everyone can be a sports, I don’t know if ‘star’ sounds full of myself, but I’ve worked hard for that title.
“So, yes, I say it and I take pride in it.”
The 13-time major champion overcame two breaks in the first set to rally for a dominating finish. She went ahead 5-0 in the second and left no doubt.
The victory was even sweeter because the ninth-ranked Bartoli beat the former world No. 1 in straight sets in the fourth round at Wimbledon this year. The finals appearance was the first for Williams since winning at the All England Club in 2010 and her best showing this year.
Williams also became the first American woman to win on home soil since she won the 2008 U.S. Open. While she entered the tournament unseeded and ranked 169th, the victory will vault Williams into the top 80.
“I hated those triple digits,” she said, chuckling. “Now I’ve got to get to single digits.”
She’s well on her way after this week.
Williams handled the competition with relative ease, including a 6-1, 6-3 thumping of Maria Sharapova in the quarterfinals. She capped it off with a vintage performance against a well-rested Bartoli, who advanced when Slovakia’s Dominika Cibulkova withdrew in the other semifinal because of a strained abdominal muscle.
Bartoli was bothered by a bruise in the center of her right hand that began to swell in the middle of the opening set. She said the injury loosened her grip but didn’t cost her the match.
Williams was too good for that.
“Serena, she already can improve from one day to the other,” Bartoli said. “So you can imagine from one match to the other. I knew before the match started it was different than Wimbledon.”
Sporting a long-sleeve green shirt and black skirt, Williams’ conservative outfit — by her sister Venus’ standards, anyway — was matched only by her strategy. She was calm and cool behind Bartoli’s go-for-broke shots, in second serve topping 100 mph, having a harder time with the elements.
Williams struggled serving into the sun on a crisp and clear day at Stanford, even hitting a few serves with a shortened toss and awkward delivery. She was broken in the third game of the match and went down 4-2.
Williams saved two break points and moved back to 4-4 with a break, pumping her fist in celebration. Bartoli broke back and served for the match at 5-4, first requesting a trainer to deal with the bruise.
After a long rally on set point for Williams, somebody in the crowd yelled “out” while Bartoli returned a ball near the baseline. The French woman kept playing before Williams unleashed a forehand winner for the set.
Bartoli argued unsuccessfully with the chair umpire to replay the point, and she requested a trainer between sets. In the end, she said, none of it mattered against her opponent.
“I’m sure she’s going to tell you that she can play even better,” Bartoli said. “And I’m sure that she will.”
Such a small victory for Williams might never have meant so much.
After winning Wimbledon in July 2010, she was out for nearly a year recovering from various health scares. The worst were two foot operations and blood clots in her lungs that left her depressed and “on my deathbed,” as she put it, much less wondering if she could ever play again.
Now Williams is not only back but ready to make more runs on the hard-court series this summer and at the U.S. Open beginning in late August. She said her stamina is back and her game is getting sharper by the day, a scary thought for opponents heading into Flushing Meadows.
Even if she’s not ready to tab herself the favorite.
“I haven’t thought about (the U.S. Open). Right now, I just put myself right at the bottom,” Williams said. “I feel like I just want to start and go in. My confidence is better, which is what I was planning for. I don’t even think like that. When I get there, I’m going to have the same chance as everybody else.”
Antonio Gonzalez can be reached at: http://www.twitter.com/agonzalezAP