July 12, 2009

Mackie Shilstone reflects on Serena / Wimbledon

With New Orleans' Mackie Shilstone, tennis star Serena Williams back on track - by Peter Finney, The Times-Picayune

Over the years, our town's Mackie Shilstone has watched a passing parade of athletes, fueled by his longtime passion for fitness, perform on the national stage. The list goes from heavyweight boxers to elfin gymnasts, from point guards to shortstops, from quarterbacks to placekickers, all with personal goals, all with varying success. The other day, as Shilstone watched Serena Williams, a recent addition to his fitness family, defeat sister Venus for the Wimbledon championship, it reminded the executive director of Fitness Principle at East Jefferson General Hospital of someone who had "certain gifts" that helped make other members of the Shilstone family special.

For example: -- Like Ozzie Smith, the Hall of Fame shortstop who played with the St. Louis Cardinals. -- Like Roy Jones, Jr., the former world champion in four weight classes. -- Like Morten Andersen, whose field-goal kicking foot won many games for the Saints. "Ozzie once told me he got his eye-to-glove, left-to-right, reaction from throwing a baseball against an uneven brick wall, " Shilstone said. "You didn't know which way the ball was coming back at you. And Ozzie did this wearing a paper bag instead of a glove on the left hand. He said the paper bag helped his quickness in getting rid of the ball. "Serena's quickness going forehand to backhand, her balance, her racquet speed, reminded me of Ozzie."

And Roy Jones? "It was Serena's feet, the way they moved," said Shilstone. "They used to talk about the quickness in Jones' hands that made him special. It was the feet, not the hands. Serena's balance, the way she moves those feet, is incredible. Made me think is Jones." And Andersen? "I looked at Serena get her first serve in and it reminded me of the small margin of error Morten Andersen had kicking a 50-yard field goal. In tennis, you're hitting a first serve at more than 100 miles per hour, over a net into a small spot you've selected. It presents a tiny margin for error. In her semifinal victory, Serena served a tournament-high 20 aces."

The more Shilstone sees of tennis at the world-class level, the more he's convinced the return of a serve (Roger Federer can go 150 mph, Venus Williams 130, Serena 127) is every bit as challenging as hitting a baseball thrown from 60 feet. "In tennis, the server has a much wider target than the pitcher," said Shilstone. "And you're hitting a bullet that's bouncing. Serena had gotten to the stage where her second serve is faster than the first serve of many of the women at her level." Shilstone was recommended to Serena's mother last year by the manager of former heavyweight champ Riddick Bowe. At the time, part of Serena's resume was a world-class player who had gone from No. 1 to No. 100-plus and was determined to fight her way back.

When Shilstone asked Serena if he could see some video of Serena at her tennis best, she said, "I don't have any, because I've never played my best." "That told me something right there," Shilstone said. "Serena is a perfectionist. As we speak, I guarantee you she's out there somewhere hitting a tennis ball. Her mental toughness, her drive for perfection, is awesome. So is the Williams family and the dad who has coached his two daughters from the start." Venus, at 29, was looking for her third consecutive Wimbledon title, and sixth overall, when 27-year-old Serena prevailed in straight sets. Venus went into match having won 34 sets in a row at Wimbledon, dating back to 2007. Serena's 7-6 (3), 6-2 victory was her third Wimbledon and 11th Grand Slam. She has captured three of the past four Grand Slam events.

There was some question how much Serena had left in the tank when she fought off match point in a three-set semifinal win that lasted two hours, 29 minutes. Meanwhile, Venus had advanced in a 6-1, 6-0 picnic that took 51 minutes. Obviously, Serena had plenty left, thanks no doubt to what she called "boot camp" - seven-day sessions that became part of her routine in Florida, including such things as the "H-Drill, " "Star Drill, '' "Ladder Drill,'' running different distances, in all directions, aimed, among other things, at building endurance. On championship day at Wimbledon, Serena Williams made it a point to catch Mackie's eye and say, "I want credit for all those 25-yard shuttles you made me do back in West Palm."

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