STANFORD -- Sometimes it seems as if tennis great Serena Williams needs to create her own challenges to bring out the best in her game.

That certainly seemed to be the case Sunday in the Bank of the West Classic championship when Williams fell behind 5-1 against Germany's Angelique Kerber out of the gate. While Williams maintained that was a result of Kerber's fine play, it actually was more a case of her own unforced errors and general listlessness against a clearly inferior player.

But pressed to the brink in that first set, it was as if Williams flipped a switch, and a different, dominant player emerged. Williams reeled off five straight games, including one in which she fended off two set points with Kerber serving at 5-2, and ultimately powered her way to a 7-6 (1), 6-3 victory at Taube Family Tennis Center.

Bank of the West Singles Final Serena Williams, of the United States, hits a return during match against Angelique Kerber of Germany during their tennis
Bank of the West Singles Final Serena Williams, of the United States, hits a return during match against Angelique Kerber of Germany during their tennis match finals at the Bank of the West Classic in the Taube Family Tennis Stadium in Stanford, Calif., on Sunday, Aug.3, 2014. (Josie Lepe/Bay Area News Group) ( Josie Lepe )

It was Williams' third Bank of the West title, and she has won 12 matches in a row at Stanford while claiming the 2011, 2012 and 2014 events (she skipped 2013). It was also the 61st title of her career, her fourth this year and a nice bounce-back from her travails at Wimbledon.

It also wouldn't have been nearly as dramatic if Williams hadn't dug her own deep hole to climb out of. Fans got a little bit more for their money, even though the match still lasted only 79 minutes.

"It's always really exciting to win like that," Williams said. "It's fun to win easy matches, but it's always great to have tough matches and tough opponents like Angelique today."


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Again, she was being kind. Kerber was the tournament's No. 3 seed and was ranked eighth in the world coming into this week's event. She has good court coverage, a sneaky forehand, and she's a lefty, which can throw a wrench against the best in tennis. But she has a mediocre first serve and a lollipop second, and once Williams found her rhythm on it, she proceeded to give it a merciless licking.

Her own serve came around, too. Williams won 100 percent of her second-set first serves -- 10 for 10. In fact, she won 16 of her 18 second-set serves, which is about as imposing as a it gets. As for mistakes, Williams made 23 unforced errors in the first set -- many of those while falling behind 5-1 -- and only six in the second.

Even though she had a large lead, Kerber didn't feel that confident, aware that one of the biggest reasons Williams is such a great player is that she plays the most important points well.

"In the important moments, she's just there and she goes for it," Kerber said. "I think that's the special thing she has ... along with her serve."

In most cases, a player who's down 5-1 in the first set will just let it go and try to regroup for the next one. What made Serena stay in and fight for what looked like a lost cause?

"I had opportunities to be up 2-0, and if I'd held serve, it could have been at least 4-3," she said. "I just thought, 'Take it one point at a time, relax and not think so much.' "

Since it doesn't happen all that often that Williams gets down 5-1, she couldn't recall if she'd ever come back from such a deficit.

"It's a good thing that it happened, though, because it can definitely build more confidence," she said. "If I'm not playing great, I know I'm still able to make a comeback."

Now the 32-year-old Williams will try to make a comeback in a larger sense. Two years ago, after winning at Wimbledon, she came to Stanford and used her Bank of the West performance as a springboard to a U.S. Open title.

Even though ranked No. 1 throughout this year, she hasn't won a Grand Slam for the first time since 2011, and the next one will be a big one -- an 18th major title would tie her for fourth with Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert on the all-time list. So her performance at Stanford could provide another critical nudge, particularly the way it unfolded with challenging wins in three straight matches.

"It tells me I'm moving in the right direction," she said. "I feel like I can really play a lot better. I don't think I served my best, and I didn't make as many winners off returns. There's a lot of room for improvement. Still, it's a good win for me to keep the momentum going."

  • The Bank of the West drew a crowd of 2,914 for the final match and 28,195 for the entire week.

    Follow Carl Steward on Twitter at twitter.com/stewardsfolly.

    top winners

    Here are the players who have won multiple singles titles in the at the Bank of the West tournament:

    6: Martina Navratilova
    4: Kim Clijsters
    3: Billie Jean King; Chris Evert; Lindsay Davenport; Serena Williams
    2: Andrea Jaeger; Hana Mandlikova; Zina Garrison; Monica Seles; Martina Hingis; Venus Williams

    top winners

    Here are the players who have won multiple singles titles over the tournament's 44-year history:

    6: Martina Navratilova
    4: Kim Clijsters
    3: Billie Jean King; Chris Evert; Lindsay Davenport; Serena Williams
    2: Andrea Jaeger; Hana Mandlikova; Zina Garrison; Monica Seles; Martina Hingis; Venus Williams