LEXINGTON, KY, USA - In her decorated 20-year career, there aren't too many places that Serena Williams hasn't been, but the 23-time Grand Slam champion will get to experience a whole lot that's new next week at the inaugural Top Seed Open presented by Bluegrass Orthopaedics.
Williams, currently ranked World No.9, is the highest-ranked player in the first WTA event on U.S. soil in over a year. The field at the Top Seed Tennis Club also boasts former Grand Slam champions Sloane Stephens, Victoria Azarenka and Venus Williams, Top 20 stars Aryna Sabalenka and Johanna Konta and American teenagers Amanda Anisimova and Coco Gauff.
The American last played a competitive tennis match in February, as she helped Team USA to a 3-2 win over Latvia in the Fed Cup Qualifiers in Everett, Wash., and the new WTA tournament announced her intentions to compete there in mid-July.
"I never expected to be playing here in Kentucky, but it's close to Florida and easy to get here for me, and I'm excited," Williams told reports via Zoom during the tournament's All-Access Hour on Saturday.
"There won't be fans here... but it's cool. We've been stuck at home for six months and I've never been home for that long since I was a teenager. Even when I was pregnant, I was traveling a lot to so many different places, so it's been a long time since I've been home that long. [That] was nice, but it's also a really cool opportunity to come to Kentucky."
No stranger to breaks from competitive tennis in her career, the 38-year-old nonetheless explained how she views this hiatus differently than her prior layoffs from injury and pregnancy, and the adjustments she needed to make while trying to train safely during lockdown.
"The biggest difference is that it wasn't just from me being injured. Everyone just had to take a break and a pause, so it will be really fun and interesting to see how we play," she said.
"Everyone has the opportunity to be more fit now, because we spent so much time at home... to just work on yourself, your life and your game. Match fitness is always different than 'fit' fitness.
"My physios are in Europe, so I had to figure out a way for someone to work with me in my bubble, in Florida, that I could trust. That was a new curve that I had to deal with. Tennis is naturally a socially distanced sport, so it was kind of easy to go back and just walk on my side of the court and have my hitter walk on his side of the court."
After returning to the courts in Kentucky, Williams will look towards resuming her quest for a 24th Grand Slam singles title at the US Open in August, previously saying that she "cannot wait" to return to Flushing Meadows.
She is also entered in the Western & Southern Open, which relocated from Mason, Ohio to the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center this year.
Having stated her intentions to compete as much as she can through the end of the tour's restructured season, Williams also reflected on the situation through the perspective that she has at this stage of her career.
"I've played through so many generations and so many different things, and I honestly feel cool to be able to play through this era and say, 'I remember when it first happened,'" she said.
"That's how I'm trying to look at it, because it's something that the whole world is going through, not just us as tennis players or us as athletes. The whole world is going through this pandemic, and right now, I think that sport is one of the few things that can almost provide a good breath of fresh air or a sigh of relief to people that are really still stuck in their homes."
Main draw play in Lexington is slated to begin on Monday, Aug. 10.