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Serena Williams is fit and ready to play after 6-month break

By GARY B. GRAVES

AP Sports Writer

LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) Serena Williams flexed and then kissed a sinewy right bicep to show down time well spent in training even without bench pressing.

"This is God given, thank you very much," the 23-time Grand Slam champion said as she thanked her mother, Oracene.

Williams now looks to flex her muscles on a tennis court for the first time in six months.

She is preparing for the inaugural Top Seed Open that opens Monday near Lexington, a recently added hard court tournament that serves as a tuneup for this month's U.S. Open in New York.

The WTA's first event in the U.S. since March features a spectator-free field that includes sister Venus Williams, a seven-time Grand Slam winner herself, Victoria Azarenka, Sloane Stephens and rising star Coco Gauff.

Serena Williams, ranked No. 9, is competing for the first time since playing for the U.S. in the Fed Cup in February. The pandemic quickly shut everything down the next month, forcing an extended layoff.

Williams has a history of blood clots and pulmonary embolisms that have affected her lung capacity. She has been "super, super careful" in avoiding exposure to COVID-19. The 38-year-old acknowledged during Saturday's virtual news conference that she's been "a bit of a recluse," in addition to owning 50 face masks and taking social distancing to an extreme.

"And everyone in the Serena bubble is really protective because at the end of the day, yeah, it's cool to play tennis, but this is my life and this is my health," Williams said.

"I've been a little neurotic to an extent, but that's just what I have to be right now."

Williams and Azarenka enter the tournament with open minds, hungry to resume competition.

"You want to just start somewhere," said Azarenka, a two-time Australian Open champ ranked 58th.

"You can practice for so long, but there's nothing like playing actual matches where you know the atmosphere. I don't really know what to expect because I've only played once in Charleston without the crowd. It's going to be an adjustment."

The road no doubt goes through Williams, the tournament's only top-10 player and a presumptive favorite no matter the circumstances. If the results from Williams' previous comeback from a long break are any indication, she has something to look forward to.

Williams returned from the September 2017 birth of her daughter, Olympia, to reach the past two finals at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. She began this year by winning the ASB Classic in New Zealand before reaching the Australian Open round of 32 and splitting two first-round matches at the Fed Cup.

She has also stayed busy during the lockdown.

Williams is in the process on building a home gym in her Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, home. Her husband, Reddit founder Alexis Ohanian, built a tennis court for her. Both have also spoken out on social justice issues during a tumultuous summer in which the death of Breonna Taylor during a raid by Louisville police sparked ongoing protests.

Williams is pursuing a 24th Slam that would tie Margaret Court's record. That quest will resume at the Open. For now, she looks to shake off the rust from a long absence - much like everybody else.

"Everyone has to take a break and pause," she said. And it'll be really fun and interesting to see how we play."

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Updated August 8, 2020

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