Sitting in a downtown New Orleans hotel 15 months ago, local fitness guru Mackie Shilstone made tennis star Serena Williams a deal she couldn't refuse.
With Williams' world ranking slumping and her knee and shoulder aching, Shilstone told Williams if she was serious about training and ready to dedicate herself to putting in extra work following her tennis workouts, he would clear his schedule and train her.
"I said if we are going to work together, I need you to be focused," said Shilstone, 58, a noted trainer who has worked with numerous Major League Baseball, NFL, NHL and NBA players, plus boxers such as Riddick Bowe, Roy Jones and Bernard Hopkins. "I need to make sure you are focused on tennis and not any outside activities. I said it's very important that you give me a commitment and not a contribution."
More than a year later, their relationship -- at and away from the training arena -- is as strong as ever, as Shilstone now is a part of Team Williams, an inner circle of coaches, trainers, therapists, managers, chefs and assistants whose primary goal is to help Williams win more Grand Slam titles. Williams already has won the Australian Open this year, her 10th Grand Slam singles title, and made it to the quarterfinals of the French Open.
Before they started training together, Shilstone brought Williams into his program, The Fitness Principle with Mackie Shilstone at East Jefferson Hospital, a 5,000-square-foot complex that opened nearly two years ago. She went through a major medical evaluation and had a dietary plan developed.
By the time it was all done, Shilstone said he "knew Serena from the inside out."
"I've gotten a lot out of his program," said Williams, 27, last week. "As an athlete you exercise your whole life, so you pretty much know what to do, but he definitely has a different outlook and different outtake and makes it fun. I am more fit than I've ever been. And that's so exciting to have someone to push you to those limits.
"My schedule is pretty hectic, but Mackie has opened up his schedule this year just for me, so if I need him he's always available. I'm a last-minute kind of girl because my schedule is always so crazy. So I just call, and I am like 'Can you come?' and he's always there."
They have worked out between Williams' tournaments, with training in New Orleans and at Williams' home base in West Palm Beach, Fla.
Their workouts typically have been drills that build Williams' endurance, increase flexibility and strengthen her core muscles.
So far, so good.
Meanwhile, the Williams and Shilstone families have forged a friendship, along with Williams' father/coach, Richard Williams, often using breaks in action to discuss raising families. Serena has developed a relationship with Shilstone's' children, even taking Shilstone's 17-year-old son, Scott, to South Beach and showing him around and also text-messaging the Country Day athlete a few pointers at this past season's state tennis tournament.
"We have a very fine relationship," Shilstone said. "She has made such a tremendous commitment to me. The commitment she has made to me both personally and financially is tremendous."
With Shilstone on board, Williams' game is beginning to flourish again. Although nagging injuries still flare up, Shilstone has helped minimize those occasions, and she finished 2008 as the WTA Player of the Year for the first time since 2002.
The next goal for Williams is to win her first Wimbledon singles crowns since back-to-back titles in 2002 and 2003. She will enter the tournament as the No. 2 seed.
The tournament begins this week, and Shilstone and Williams have been working diligently. After their core workouts on the tennis court, the two moved to a grass surface for drills in hopes of simulating the playing surface at Wimbledon.
Shilstone, who typically doesn't travel with Williams, will make an exception for this tournament. He said he and his family will travel to London to watch her matches from the stands and be ready if Williams needs him.
"He's tough," Williams said. "He definitely gives it to you. He has a heart of gold, so if I'm dying or if I'm really sore, he's always making sure I'm OK. But he knows when to push and when not to push, which a lot of times the trainers don't know that.
"With all the workouts that I've been doing, hopefully, it will all pay off when I get to Wimbledon."