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NY Times features Mackie Shilstone and tennis great Serena Williams

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MASON, Ohio — The only upset in Serena Williams’s first-round match on Tuesday against Lucie Hradecka was registered in the stands, well above the court, when one female fan turned to another and said, “Serena’s legs look skinny.”

Williams, who is built more like the curvy singer Beyoncé than the supermodel Naomi Campbell, smiled when the comment was relayed to her after her 6-3, 7-6 (5) victory at the Western & Southern Open, her final tuneup for the United States Open.

“I’ve never used me and skinny in the same sentence,” Williams said. “Maybe me and thick, or me and curvy or sexy, but not necessarily skinny.”

Williams, who will turn 30 next month, did say that she was “the most fit I’ve been in general.”

Her game also is rounding into shape. Since bowing out in the fourth round at Wimbledon, Williams, a 13-time major champion in singles, has won consecutive titles, in California and Canada, for the first time since the spring of 2008, when she won three tournaments in a row.

With every match she plays, and wins, the health problems that kept her out of competition for nearly a year — two-foot operations and blood clots in her lungs — recede deeper into her subconscious. Since her return at Wimbledon, Williams has appeared considerably lighter in spirit. She is less excitable on the court and more expansive off it.

“For whatever reason, I’m more chill,” she said. “I think it’s just because I don’t want to waste a lot of energy doing too much screaming and stuff. Not that I didn’t enjoy myself before, but I’m really enjoying every moment now.”

Mackie Serena

The health problems caused Williams to take stock of her life, she says. When she resumed her tennis career, she rededicated herself to a fitness regimen she had started in 2009 under the supervision of the New Orleans-based training guru Mackie Shilstone.

“I just decided if I could be fit, maybe that can be a new level in my game,” Williams said last week in Toronto, “because I think I’ve always been, I think, a halfway decent player. I thought, ‘What haven’t I been?’ I have never really been fit.”

Shilstone traveled to Palm Beach County, Fla., to work with Williams before Wimbledon. He also accompanied her to Northern California for a WTA tournament at Stanford, where Williams avenged her loss to Marion Bartoli at Wimbledon by dispatching her in the final.

“Every time I work with Mackie, I have really good results,” Williams said. “We work well together. He’s a great guy. He’s smart. He’s tough, but yet I still have a way of kind of making him not be so hard on me.”

Williams said she would beg out of some core exercises by reminding Shilstone that she was a girly girl.

Don’t believe her, Shilstone said. In a telephone interview on Tuesday, he said that he had worked with thousands of male athletes and that few had been as tough as Williams.

He declined to elaborate, deferring all discussions about their collaboration to Williams. In an article published in June, Shilstone told The New Orleans Times-Picayune: “Football players all think they are tough because they are in a collision sport, but I don’t think they hold a candle to Serena Williams because they are too pampered. Serena Williams was never pampered.”

Shilstone was a 140-pound receiver at Tulane before becoming a fitness guru. His clients have included the boxer Michael Spinks, the baseball player Ozzie Smith and the actor who played Babe Ruth, John Goodman, who lost more than 100 pounds under Shilstone’s supervision.

He speaks as fast as a Williams serve. Without pausing for a breath, Shilstone talked about tennis conditioning and managed to touch on the subjects of oxytocin, the hormone associated with human attachment and bonding; “the noncombat combative” nature of tennis; Eric Heiden’s skating; Spinks’s heavyweight upset win over Larry Holmes; and glycogen fatigue.

“Tennis, in my mind,” he said, “is one of the most mentally demanding sports you’ll play for this reason: You can literally wear your opponent down mentally, and then the physiological fatigue will follow.”

With Williams, Shilstone has focused on increasing endurance and flexibility and strengthening her core muscles. Tennis is often compared to boxing because, in each, the combatants are left alone to duke it out. But the drills Shilstone puts Williams through have more in common with the regimen he developed for the hockey forward Brett Hull.

“You train the tennis player very similar to an N.H.L. player,” Shilstone said. “In both sports, you’re talking about quick bursts of movement.”

According to Shilstone, a point typically lasts 4 to 10 seconds. In Williams’s match against Hradecka, many of the points were shorter than that, beginning and ending with one of her emphatic serves. She finished with seven aces and consistently made her opponent look as if she were swatting at flies.

The night before the match, Williams sent a Twitter message that contained the partial lyrics to the Britney Spears song “Lucky,” which is about a star who smiles to hide her despair.

“I just love that song,” Williams said, adding, “I always tweet lyrics a lot, and some people are like, Are you O.K.? What’s going on?”

Williams assured reporters she was not the girl in those lyrics. It was just a song in her head, she said. The music in her heart is much more affirmative.

For more information on The Fitness Principle with Mackie Shilstone, click here.