Serena Williams rediscovers passion

I can think of at least two people who probably gulped and threw the remote across the room when Serena Williams knocked off Marion Bartoli in the Stanford final on Sunday. That would be the promoters of the two big Tier I events coming up in Toronto and Cincinnati.

Stung by that fourth-round loss at Wimbledon a few weeks ago, Serena suddenly seemed to rediscover her passion for tennis (although it might be more accurate to say she got back in touch with her relish for being the pre-emptive star of the WTA Tour). The next thing you know, Serena is signed up to play three hard-court events leading up to the U.S. Open, which for her is a little like enlisting in the Army as a lowly infantry(wo)man.

That Wimbledon loss probably scared the bejeezus out of Serena, and maybe she needed a fright. Clearly, she decided that she was willing to make whatever sacrifice was required between early July and late August to optimize her ability to snatch that U.S. Open championship away from Kim Clijsters. And don't we all suspect that down deep -- well, not all that deep -- Serena considers herself the rightful owner of that title?

Now on the heels of this comprehensive win at Stanford, you have to wonder whether Serena will feel as driven as she did as little as a week ago to whip her game into shape. You couldn't draw up a better, more realistic series of tests for Serena than the ones she faced -- and passed with flying colors -- at Stanford.

There was volatile and sometimes deadly Maria Kirilenko in the second round, pressing Williams to go the three-set distance for the win. In the quarters, Serena faced Maria Sharapova, she of the 16-2 recent stats, and a recovering Grand Slam champ herself. Sharapova has the game -- in theory -- to tear down the Williams meat house. But in practice, Sharapova was an out-of-sync, terribly erratic and error-prone woman with a lot more heart than game.

In Sabine Lisicki, Williams was up against one of the few women who, like herself, is capable of serving an opponent off the court, as well as a potential impact player once again on the upswing. Serena routinely beat her to land a place in the final opposite Bartoli -- the very woman who had ushered her out of Wimbledon.

The main theme here might have seemed like revenge, but the larger and more interesting question was: Is Serena fit enough, mentally and physically, to win that first title in more than a year against a player as driven, hungry and recently successful against her as Bartoli? Serena answered that one, 7-5, 6-1. It was a convincing reply.

The conclusion seems inescapable. No matter how grim the situation appeared in the second week of Wimbledon (let's remember, Serena hadn't played in almost a full year and is closing in on the age of 30), she's right back where she ever was -- at the top, no matter what the pundits or rankings say.

And that raises the original, implied question. Will Serena now go all coy on us and finagle a way to miss one or both of those big hard-court meetings in Toronto and Cincinnati? It's legitimate to wonder just how much match play she really needs, and even more important to weigh whether there's any danger of her playing too much, given how effective she is when well-rested and shrouded in mystery. Maybe she's at her best when she just drops out of the blue to snatch up a major title, as she did in Australia in 2007 -- a performance that some believe is her best ever.

But let's not overlook one compelling if not easily quantified factor that might determine how much Serena decides to play between now and the U.S. Open. That's the degree to which she wants to play, just for the sake of doing it. Is the passion there for the game, as well as the position? At her age and with her résumé and recent history, her greatest incentive might be the amount of joy and satisfaction she gets out of playing. That might be the most critical element in what Serena does the next few weeks.

Those tournament directors in Toronto and Cincinnati aren't the only ones sitting there with their fingers crossed.