The WTA's three-week, pre-Olympic break from the grass courts starts this week with the first tournament of the US summer hardcourt swing in Stanford and a red clay International event in Palermo.
The 2011 Bank of the West Classic was just Serena Williams' third tournament since returning to the WTA after a year-long absence because of various medical issues. Ranked No.169 at the time, she went all the way to the title, the first clue that she would return to the dominant form she had displayed throughout her career before she was sidelined.
This year, Williams comes into Stanford with a lot more confidence in her health and her game. Fresh off her fifth Wimbledon title and 14th major, she is the top seed and is up to No.4 in the world - her highest ranking since January 2011. After a first round bye, she starts her title defense Wednesday (NB 15.00hrs).
Williams' victim in last year's final, Marion Bartoli, is in the field again as the No.2 seed. The Frenchwoman has had plenty of success in Stanford, having also been runner-up in 2008 and champion in 2009. Third-seeded Dominika Cibulkova - a semifinalist in Stanford last year - and fourth-seeded Jelena Jankovic will both be seeking to shake off first round losses at Wimbledon.
A first round encounter that should garner attention is the WTA's highest-ranked teen, 19-year-old American Sloane Stephens, against Heather Watson. Both made the third round at the All-England Club, resulting in Stephens cracking the Top 50 and Watson climbing to a career-high No.79, just four spots behind the highest-ranked Brit - Anne Keothavong.
Tickets for Stanford can be purchased right here.
At the XXV Italiacom Open, 2001, 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2011 champion Anabel Medina Garrigues, who is 32-3 in Palermo, will be looking to extend her tournament record with a sixth title. Only three other active players have won a WTA event five times: Venus Williams (at Wimbledon), Serena Williams (at the Australian Open, Miami and Wimbledon) and Kim Clijsters (at Luxembourg). On top of that, the fourth-seeded Medina Garrigues is also the active career leader in clay court titles with 10.
"I think the environment of this tournament is the key," Medina Garrigues said after last year's triumph. "I always manage to play well here and I'm also really happy to win here for the fifth time - the other players who have done that on the WTA are really, really good players."
No.1 seed Sara Errani figures to be one of the major threats to another victory for the Spaniard. The 2008 Palermo winner and 2009 runner-up had a 16-match clay court win streak earlier this year and went all the way to the final of last month's French Open, prompting her ascension into the Top 10 for the first time. However, she will be seeking to shake off an unpleasant Wimbledon memory, as in her third round loss to Yaroslava Shvedova, she became the first woman in the Open Era to fail to win a point in a set.