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By Richard Pagliaro | Monday, May 10, 2021

Serena Williams

Serena Williams says she's feeling fresh ahead of her Rome return, but can she shake the rust in just her third tournament of the season?

Photo credit: Internazionali BNL d'Italia Facebook

Rapping her Wilson racquet off the side of her sneakers, Serena Williams cleared clumps of clotted clay from the soles of her shoes.

The 39-year-old superstar will try to rid the red rust from her game in her Rome return this week.

More: Sofia Kenin on Why She Parted From Dad as Coach

Three months of inactivity since her 6-3, 6-4 loss to Naomi Osaka in the Australian Open semifinals have left the former world No. 1 feeling fresh, which can be both a benefit and challenge.

"[I'm] pretty fresh," Williams said. "But at the same time, it's good to start fresh but it's also hard to start fresh. Whatever."

Of course match fitness on clay requires strength, stamina and flexibility. 

Four-time Rome champion Serena has played just nine matches in 2021. Rome represents her third tournament of the season this week, following semifinal runs at Yarra Valley Classic and the Australian Open.

The 23-time Grand Slam champion said she's prepared for her red clay return with weeks of "intense" training working with coach Patrick Mouratoglou and trainer Mackie Shilstone, who has incorporated boxing workouts into some of her training sessions in the past.

Will Williams be ring ready at the Foro Italico where she's five years removed from her last Rome title and has played just one match since defeating Madison Keys in the 2016 final?

"I trained for the past two-and-a-half weeks at Patrick's academy, and then training a lot on the clay in the United States with team members," Williams said. "Mackie came back and other people joined, and that was really exciting for me.

"So we had an intense, you know, several weeks of training, very intense. Yeah, so that's kind of what happened for me."

The three-time Roland Garros champion will need to hit the dirt running. Williams will face either lucky loser Laura Siegemund, the 2017 Stuttgart champion, or 44th-ranked Argentinean Nadia Podoroska, who played through qualifying to reach the 2020 Roland Garros semifinals.

"She definitely knows how to play. She plays with a lot of power," Williams said of Podoroska. "I was watching her earlier this year actually so it was good. I was able to see her game a little bit. Everyone gears up for Top 10 players, and so if I'm in the Top 10 I will be ready."

While Williams has enjoyed her best Grand Slam success on the hard courts of the Australian Open and the grass of Wimbledon, she has had clay success, spent time playing on green clay growing up in Florida and is an athletic mover. 

The woman who has a knack for thumping the timely ace suggested she's played the stealth card by minimizing training posts on social media leaving fans and does wondering what's up?

Williams says her focus is on the ball not the skeptics.

"I really try not to get involved in too much of what people say about me, because I feel like it can make you nuts," Williams said. "Whether it's good or bad, it could be, I I don't really try to think too much of myself in that way at all.

"I think that's one thing I'm really good at is just to not really even engage so much, but I do feel like, because I don't do a lot of sport content, so 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."


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