By Matt Cronin, special to EmiratesUSOpenSeries.com
If you are in search of blood, sweat and tears during the Emirates Airline US Open Series, there is not a better place to start than with its opening tournament, the Bank of the West Classic at Stanford University in Northern California.
It’s a place where so many US Open champions have cut their teeth prior to title runs in New York: Martina Hingis (1997), Lindsay Davenport (1998), Venus Williams (2000) and Kim Clijsters (2005). Even if the titlists do not go on to US Open title runs, a win at Stanford is almost always a harbinger for good things to come: After winning the title in 2007, Russia's Anna Chakvetadze reached her sole US Open semifinal, and after taking the crown in 2010, Victoria Azarenka gained the confidence she needed to begin her long climb to the No. 1 ranking.
Last year, after a disappointing Wimbledon, Serena Williams won her first title in Palo Alto, which was the cornerstone of her 18-match winning streak that she took into the US Open final, where she lost to Samantha Stosur.
Every tournament has its distinct feel, but few are as drenched in history as the Bank of the West Classic, which does not feel like a brief, annual stop on the WTA Tour but a part of the area's tennis lore.
The tournament is not only the longest-running women's-only tennis tournament in the world in its 42nd year, but a necessary visit for WTA fans in the San Francisco Bay area. Longtime box seat holders include doctors and professors from Stanford (many whom are recreational players), tech wizards from the surrounding Silicon Valley (which houses Google and Apple) and high-finance executives from San Francisco, hence the recent renewal of Bank of the West’s sponsorship until 2017, when it will celebrate 20 years as the title sponsor.
Stanford itself is a sports mecca, and WTA players frequently talk about how much they love running on the state-of-the-art track that is next to the Taube Tennis Stadium or taking a dip in one of the Olympic-sized pools. And don’t think that fans haven’t lined up next to the track watching the likes of Clijsters and Daniela Hantuchova do wind sprints.
Given the semi-desert climate of Palo Alto -- the leafy city that surrounds Stanford -- the tennis facilities are busy year-round. Perhaps due to the massive success of its men’s and women’s' programs, it is one of the few universities that was able to permanently endow both of its tennis programs.
Stanford's women's team has won a record 17 NCAA team titles and sports a host of players who have gone on to become longtime pros on the WTA tour, such as Kathy Jordan, Patty Fendick, Debbie Graham and Laura Granville. A former Stanford All-American and WTA pro, LeLe Forood is the team's coach. Even the famous astronaut Sally Ride, who played No. 1 there from 1969-72, has attended the event.
Packed houses have been staples of the event and also of Stanford tennis itself, dating back to the one year that John McEnroe played for the men’s team and at that point was not a household name. That year, Stanford's indoor facility, Maples Pavilion, was said to be nearly full well after midnight with the deciding doubles match against UCLA still in progress.
While Stanford University actually owns 8,180 total acres that spreads across two counties, (1,161 acres in Palo Alto alone), the airy campus is not that immense and actually feels cozy around the Taube Tennis Center, which was redesigned just before the Bank of the West Classic moved there from Oakland. The center has also hosted the 1999 Fed Cup Final between the U.S. vs. Russia, some senior pro events, as well as multiple NCAA Championships. The complex now has 17 lit courts, all with fan seating.
What fans see, hear and feel when they look down on the stadium courts is the intensity of the competition. Almost every player who has won the tournament has quickly projected out to her US Open chances.
Back in 2005, when Clijsters knocked out reigning Wimbledon titlist Venus Williams, 7-5, 6-2, in the final, Venus was none too pleased. "She'll have to beat a different me at the US Open," Venus said. "I won't be burned out and will challenge a lot more balls than I did today."
After some frustrating results in big matches, Clijsters left the Bank of the West having won 24 straight matches on U.S. soil and 16 straight on U.S. outdoor hard courts, including title runs at Indian Wells, Miami and Stanford.
"The US Open is on my mind," Clijsters said at the time. "I'd like to give myself another chance to go for the title again."
She went for it and won her first title in New York.
Whether or not the same scenario plays out in 2012 remains to be seen, but there is one thing that’s clear: Whoever leaves Stanford the winner will be battle tested and tough during the rest of the Emirates Airline US Open Series.