"It’s good to start fresh, but it’s also hard to start fresh." As she prepares to return to action for the first time in nearly two months, Serena Williams knows the challenges ahead. She says she has done “several weeks of very intense training” ahead of playing at the Italian Open this week, but with no competitive matches since mid-February, there is uncertainty over what to expect from her on clay.
She has said in the past that it is her "favourite" surface, but statistically it is her least successful. Of her 73 career titles, just 13 have come on clay, including three at Roland-Garros and four in Rome. In the past Rome has been an indicator for Williams’ strength on clay: after her four wins at the tournament she has gone on to reach the French open final three times, winning it twice.
But this year is very different.
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Williams, 39, hasn’t played since losing to Naomi Osaka in the semi-finals of the Australian Open, taking time off before resuming training on clay in the USA and then heading to her coach Patrick Mouratoglou’s tennis academy in France. She has been joined in training by former world Number 4 Zina Garrison and fitness coach Mackie Shilstone. Three-time Grand Slam champion Lindsay Davenport thinks Shilstone’s presence is significant.
"That’s the big one for me – Mackie Shilstone," said Davenport on the Tennis Channel. "Every time in my opinion that Serena has been at her fittest and ready to go, Mackie has been by her side, so it’s a good sign that she has been training with him."
But even if Williams is at peak fitness, how challenging will it be to jump into the middle of the clay season and be successful? Perhaps not as challenging for Williams as it would be for others, but it’s an interesting time to return with a week in Rome, then an extra week of clay after the French Open was pushed back, and then onto Paris. If she loses early in Rome – she could face 10th seed Belinda Bencic in the third round and Osaka in the quarter-finals – will she then enter another tournament next week to gain more match practice? Or will she head straight to Paris ahead of the French Open, which starts on May 24?
"What is she looking for in Rome?” asked Davenport. “Get a match or two, hopefully three, see how the body is feeling and get used to the clay. I don’t think we can expect Serena to play her best tennis right off the bat in Rome. In previous years she would be coming off playing in other tournaments.”
But, again, this year isn't like previous years.
"I don’t know, I’m done,” were Williams’ final words the last time she was in a press conference, having struggled to contain her emotions after defeat to Osaka. After two months off she sounds refreshed, and not weighed down by the pressures that come with playing tennis.
"I do feel like people are wondering if I'm playing, and I have to say I always am, you just don't see it. I don't show what I do. I don't always show my cards.”
Even her position in the rankings doesn’t seem that important right now - asked about her first opponent in Rome she said with a smile: “Everyone gears up for top-10 players, and so if I'm in the top 10 I will be ready. Am I? I don't even know where I am, but somewhere.”
But of more importance is the continued pursuit of a 24th Grand Slam title, which would see her move level with Margaret Court for most majors ever. It would be surprising if number 24 came in Paris considering her lack of competitive action and relative lack of success at the French Open compared to other Grand Slams. However, Wimbledon – her second-most successful Slam - is not far away, and a good showing in Rome could be the first building block to a strong summer.
I feel like I'm good. I'm in Rome. I'm going to have some good matches here hopefully, and then I will be at another Grand Slam which always makes me excited. So, I think either way I'll be ready."
This year is very different, but how much of a force will Williams be over the next month?
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