WIMBLEDON -- While her peers were playing in grass tournaments throughout Europe in the weeks leading into Wimbledon, Serena Williams opted to stay in France following her third-round exit at Roland Garros to train by herself.
At least she thought she would be by herself. She soon discovered she was sharing a gym with the English national soccer team as the players readied for the FIFA Women's World Cup, and she found herself having daily breakfast and working out with the squad.
"We spoke; we were like workout buddies," said Williams on Saturday. "I didn't really work out with them, but we worked out in the same vicinity. I like to say we worked out together.
"It was so fun to see how hard they worked, just how amazing they were. I was looking at them in the gym. I'm like, 'OK, I cannot do that.' At one point I wanted to join in their ab exercise. [I] wonder[ed] if I could scoot to the side and do exactly what they're doing."
She insists she'll still be rooting for the U.S. -- "I love the team" -- when the two countries meet in the semifinals on Tuesday, but she enjoyed and appreciated the experience with the Lionesses and perhaps will find motivation from both teams as she opens play at the All England Club against qualifier Giulia Gatto-Monticone, also on Tuesday. She can use all the extra inspiration she can get right now.
Her unorthodox training routine entering her favorite tournament is just the latest example of a strange year for Williams. After making it to the finals at both Wimbledon and the US Open in 2018, following her return from maternity leave, the 37-year-old hasn't exactly lived up to the expectations that tend to surround her. She advanced to the quarterfinals in Australia but has played just four tournaments since and hasn't made it beyond the third round.
She has struggled with pain and injuries throughout the season, most recently with a knee issue that she sought treatment for in Paris. She says she's finally feeling healthy, if not a bit rusty due to lack of matches, but she tried to put herself on a tournament schedule over the past few weeks.
"Obviously, I haven't had the best time and preparation that I normally would have," she said. "I've had a good week and a half, but I have been really just mentally training, physically training, for that time here [in Wimbledon]. I'm just going to do the best that I can now that I'm here."
While she wishes she had more preparation time, she insists there's one thing she has no more time for these days: drama. She's had more than her fair share in the past (just ask Naomi Osaka or Maria Sharapova), but she says she's too old for it now. So when she was asked about the Dominic Thiem "controversy" in Paris, she was quick to squash it.
(For those who blissfully missed this, while Thiem was in the middle of a press conference at the French Open, he was kicked out of the room so Williams could come speak. He was decidedly unhappy about it and said she had a "bad personality.")
Williams shared her version of the story and was insistent there was no bad blood with Thiem.
"I asked them [French Open organizers] to put me in the small room," said Williams, who sounded slightly annoyed about having to answer questions about the incident. "I begged them to put me in the small room, and they didn't. I said, 'Listen, I can come back. I'm just going to go back.' They're like, 'No, stay here.'
"They pulled him out. I was like, 'You guys are so rude to do that,' quote-unquote, that's what I said. The next day, I had a bad personality. Literally that's what happened. I actually stuck up for the guy, so . . . I don't understand how I got a bad personality for telling them what they did was wrong to him. But we spoke about it. I've always liked him. I still like him. He's a great, like, player. I mean, he's unbelievable.
"I'm really, quite frankly, too old to be in controversy. That's why I just wanted to clear the air. I'm like, 'Dude, I told them that it wasn't right what they did'. He said he didn't say 'bad personality,' [and] that [the media] mixed up his words. It's all good. That's literally what happened."
With that now hopefully put to bed, Williams will try to focus on winning her eighth Wimbledon title and potentially tying Margaret Court's record of 24 Grand Slam titles. But for now, she's just taking it one match at a time.
"I can't go into Grand Slams thinking about records," she said. "I just have to go in a Grand Slam and think about just the first match. If I get that, I think about the next match. If I'm in the final, try to win one for once." And despite her recent struggles, she still has some high-profile supporters and believers.
"There's so many things that may be going against Serena, and she thrives on that, and she loves that, and that's when she comes through," said Chris Evert, the 18-time Grand Slam champion and ESPN broadcaster, in a conference call with media. "So I would say, looking at this year, if there's any Grand Slam she's going to win, it would probably be Wimbledon. And I just think with her game, she just loves hitting the ball, she just loves that power. And if her serve is on, she's going to be tough to beat."
Placed in the same quarter of the draw as Ashleigh Barty, Angelique Kerber and Garbine Muguruza, it won't be an easy road to get back to the final. But, of course, at the end of the day, she's still Serena Williams. "I know how to play tennis," she said with a smile.