Venus Williams returns to the Bay Area for the Bank of the West Classic this week. (Tim Ireland/AP file photo)

Venus Williams seeks 50th career title at Bank of the West Classic

Fresh off her first Wimbledon semifinal appearance in seven years, a resurgent 36-year-old Venus Williams will be the top seed at this week’s Bank of the West Classic in Palo Alto.

Williams made her professional debut 22 years ago, at 14. Williams won her first professional match at the Classic, beating Shaun Stafford 6-3, 6-4 at the Oakland Arena, the former home of the event.

This year marks the 20th year the tournament will be held at Stanford’s Taube Tennis Center. Started in 1971, the Bank of the West Classic is the oldest women’s-only professional tennis tournament in the world.

First round matches will get underway today with 11 a.m. and 7 p.m. sessions. With a first-round bye, Williams will play her first match of the tournament on Wednesday night at 7 p.m.

Highlighting the first night of play will be a hometown matchup between two former Stanford standouts Nicole Gibbs and Carol Zhao.

Gibbs won two NCAA national singles titles in 2012 and 2013, and since turning professional has climbed to No. 72 in the world. Zhao, who helped lead the Cardinal to their 19th NCAA team title this spring, recently announced that she would forego her senior season to turn professional.

Tuesday night will feature 17-year-old, top-ranked junior Cici Bellis, as she takes on Jelena Ostapenko of Latvia. Bellis, who is a Bay Area native, made a big splash in the tennis world in 2014 when she became the youngest player in nearly 30 years to win a U.S. Open match. Should Bellis survive her first two matches, it could setup a potential passing of the baton-type showdown with Williams.

After playing more and more overseas over the past few years, Williams is looking forward to a homecoming of sorts at this year’s Classic, which will mark her 13th appearance in the event. She will also be looking to capture her 50th career singles title.

“There’s not as many opportunities as there was when I first started to play in the U.S.,” Williams said, “so it’s become really special at this point.”

The middle rounds of the event will be played throughout the end of the week, culminating in a Sunday final.

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