Venus Williams casts a large shadow over the $753,000 Bank of the West Classic and having her return to the courts at Stanford's Taube Family Tennis Stadium after a year's absence is like having a favorite family member coming home after a long trip.
The tournament's main draw begins Monday, July 18, with sessions at 11 a.m. and 7 p.m.
It's always nice to welcome Venus Williams back to the tournament where she began her glorious tennis career 22 years ago.
It's far from a one-woman show, though, as tournament director Vickie Gunnarsson points out.
"We have a great player field at the Bank of the West Classic this year, highlighted by Venus," Gunnarsson said during a recent media conference call. "Overall, 12 out of our players have won at least one career WTA title and many will represent their countries at the Olympics. We expect this year's tournament to be highly competitive."
World No. 3 and 2013 Bank of the West Classic finalist Agnieszka Radwanska was forced to withdraw due to a right hand injury.
Even without Radwanska, it will be an entertaining field. Williams is the lone top-10 player in the field, currently ranked No. 7, but there are 10 others among the top 75, including Stanford product Nicole Gibbs, who was knocked out of the Stockton Challenger on Thursday.
Gibbs is another in a long line of NCAA singles champions who have appeared in the tournament.
Atherton resident CiCi Bellis also returns to Stanford. The 17-year-old made waves when she became the youngest player to win a match at the U.S. Open, in 2014, since Mary Joe Fernandez in 1986.
She beat the eighth-seeded Sachia Vickery on Thursday to reach the quarterfinal round of the $50,000 Stickton Challenger.
Bellis beat Dominika Cibulkova in three sets in the first round of the US Open and could see her again in the Bank of the West. Cibulkova is one of the top seeds and currently ranked No. 12 in the world.
Bellis won the 2014 USTA Girl's 18s National title when she was 15, becoming the youngest winner of the event since Lindsay Davenport in 1991.
She has won four career ITF singles titles and currently ranks No. 220 in World while playing a limited schedule.
Overall, 12 countries are represented in the field and has combined to win 76 career WTA singles titles.
The player field also includes Australian Open semifinalist Johanna Konta, 2012 Bank of the West Classic finalist Coco Vandeweghe and Japanese No. 1 Misaki Doi.
Venus Williams has won two Bank of the West Classic titles and reached the finals on five other occasions.
The former world No. 1 did not have a ranking when she showed up to play No. 58 Shaun Stafford in her first professional match.
It was Halloween of 1994 and the event was played indoors at the Oakland Arena.
She beat Stafford, 6-3, 6-4, and took a set off the then No. 2 ranked Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario before losing to the eventual tournament champion.
She was awarded 5,350 dollars in prize money and earned her first 27 WTA ranking points. To paraphrase an earlier sponsor of the event, she's come a long way since then.
"It's great to play at home, in front of the home crowd," Williams said. "There's not as many opportunities as there was when I first started to play in the U.S., so it's become really special at this point. I love hard courts. I grew up on hard courts. I feel right at home on it."
Williams reached her first Bank of the West final in 1998, losing to Lindsay Davenport. She beat Davenport two years later to win her first Classic title.
Williams has a 31-10 career mark at the Bank of the West Classic as she prepares to make her 13th overall appearance here.
"I'm always looking for different ways that I can be at my best," she said. "Whether it's eating, resting, different training regimens, whatever it may be. It's a constant search. I never give up."
This marks the 46th year of competition for the
Bank of the West Classic, making the event the longest-running women-only tennis tournament in the world. The Bank of the West Classic is part of the Emirates Airline US Open Series, which begins after Wimbledon and concludes with the US Open.