“I don't show what I do. I don't always show my cards.”

Serena Williams was conspicuously absent from the WTA circuit as the clay-court season got underway, having not played since a painful Australian Open defeat to Naomi Osaka. While coach Patrick Mouratoglou announced her intent to play this spring, the 23-time Grand Slam champion took to Instagram at the end of April to break her own sporting silence, promising fans she was working hard ahead of Roland Garros.

"No one asked, but I just felt like #RenasArmy needs to know that I'm out here doing all the work, and that this is for you," she concluded.

True to her word, she arrived at the Internazionali BNL d’Italia fresh off a cross-continental training bloc that included former Wimbledon finalist Zina Garrison and fitness trainer Mackie Shilstone.

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“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 explained in her pre-tournament press conference. “Mackie came back and other people joined, and that was really exciting for me.

“So, we had an intense, several weeks of training, very intense.”

That off-court intensity will be essential for the American to jump mid-stream into the clay swing, one that has been largely dominated by world No. 1 Ashleigh Barty and Aryna Sabalenka—who split the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix and Mutua Madrid Open titles, respectively.

“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.”

The Foro Italico has often served as an accurate measure of her clay-court comfort: in four title runs, Williams has gone on to reach the Roland Garros final three times (winning two). Rome has also been her most successful clay tournament, winning it most recently in 2016.

Serena Williams exudes quiet confidence ahead of Rome return

Serena Williams exudes quiet confidence ahead of Rome return

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"I love Rome. It's really one of my best cities in the world. You know, I was asking my daughter, I was, like, ‘Okay, what's your favorite place? Mommy's favorite place is Italy.’ She copies me, so she says, ‘Italy.’ So, it's kind of funny.

“I love this city. I have some really good friends here that I have had since I was a teenager, so it's always cool to come to a place where you have friends. It's like an experience to bond, even though we can't bond right now, which is unfortunate, but it's really, really, really, really, really amazing, and I love it here.”

Seeded No. 8, Williams will open against either surprise French Open semifinalist Nadia Podoroska or Laura Siegemund, who enters the draw as a lucky loser. Williams dropped just two games to Siegemund in Melbourne, but would be playing Podoroska for the first time.

“She definitely knows how to play. She plays with a lot of power. I was watching her earlier this year actually so it was good. I was able to see her game a little bit.”

How will Williams fare in the final major clay-court event before Paris? In her inimitable fashion, Williams keeps her cards close to the chest.

“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.”

Serena Williams exudes quiet confidence ahead of Rome return

Serena Williams exudes quiet confidence ahead of Rome return