The tears of a champion

WIMBLEDON, England -- First, Serena Williams' third-round match against Jill Craybas, a tennis journeywoman from Rhode Island, was moved from Centre Court to Court No. 2 at the All England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club, sometimes referred to as "the graveyard of champions."

Then Craybas, a 30-year-old who has never been ranked higher than No. 51 in the world, unceremoniously ushered the younger of the celebrated Williams sisters out of the ladies singles, 6-3, 7-6 (4). Night was falling in London SW 19. Soon enough, so were Serena's tears.

It was a devastating early exit for the Wimbledon champion of 2002-2003 and runner-up to Maria Sharapova last year. The Australian Open this year was Serena's seventh career Grand Slam singles title. But short on both fitness and match play because of an ankle injury that kept her out of the French Open, she still thought she could get through the middle Saturday and perhaps play herself into form during the second week of The Championships.

She knows now she could not, and that reality hit hard. There will be no more talk about whether Serena should have been seeded higher than No. 4 in deference to her résumé, and to avoid a meeting with her 14th-seeded older sister, Venus, the champion of both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in 2000-2001, that was anticipated in the fourth round. They are more accustomed to playing each other in finals, but now there will be no Williams vs. Williams at Wimbledon in 2005. Craybas will play Venus on Monday.

On the court, Serena was so frustrated she bounced her racket in disgust off the turf. She muttered to herself at change-overs. She seemed out of rhythm and out of sorts from the start, but she did show a true competitor's heart.

Afterwards, she tried to choke back sobs, but was again unsuccessful. In a post-match post-mortem, her emotions were as unsettled as her tennis had been on Wimbledon's most notorious "upset court." This one hurt. Serena seemed less angry than crushed. The blow to her psyche, the pain in her heart, were palpable.

Grunting fiercely, fighting like the tigress she always has been, she had tried to claw her way back into the match, and did in fact fight back from 2-4 down in the second set to force a tiebreaker in twilight. But her serve was a pathetic parody of what it used to be. She couldn't will her high-powered shots to stay in the court, or to clear the net.

She is certainly not in fighting trim, nor sharp in any facet of her usually formidable game. She had lost sets in the first two rounds to opponents she once would have regarded as nothing more than sparring partners, and was knocked out by a player currently ranked No. 85 in the world, who had never been past the third round of a major.

The match was scheduled to be the fourth on Centre Court on a day when play started an hour earlier than usual to accommodate a program congested with matches postponed by rain on Friday evening. But of the first three, only Kim Clijsters' victory over Roberta Vinci went in straight sets. Roger Federer took four sets to dispatch Nicolas Kiefer on a day the two-time defending men's champion wasn't playing his best. David Nalbandian came back from two sets down to dash Britain's last hope, Andrew Murray.

And so after waiting through lunch time, tea time and supper time, Williams and Craybas were relegated to Court 2, where they began to play at 7:27 p.m. on an overcast evening. There was a sense of foreboding and impending gloom in Serena's shaky strokes and unconfident countenance from the start of the passion play on this substitute stage.

Give her credit for taking a quick shower and showing up promptly for an interview session during which she needed tissues more than once.

How did she feel?

"Horrible," Serena said, the answer barely audible.

Could you describe your game today?

"I can't use those words," she sighed. "The words that I would use are all foul. It wouldn't be proper for me to use those words."

Would it be fair to say that you came into Wimbledon rusty and never got over that?

"I guess I had a lot of rust. I just didn't play well today," she said. "I mean, the other days I kind of played through it and the second and third set I got better. But today I just didn't do anything right."

Craybas had no aces, no service winners, and only 15 winners, compared with 23 unforced errors. Williams hit 29 winners, but made 34 unforced errors.

"I shouldn't have lost this match," Serena said between deep breaths, sips on a bottle of water, and dabs at her eyes as she tried to compose herself. "I think she just got balls back. She didn't have to do anything exceptionally well today. She just pretty much had to show up. I just couldn't win a service game in the first set. Then it was just downhill."

She avoided answering queries about why, knowing she wasn't fully fit or match tough coming in, she took this loss so hard. Asked if there was something outside of tennis weighing on her, she said: "No, not really. I've never been one to lose well."

Few champions are.

She seemed to think she could make up for practice time lost to injury, and preparation time devoted to fashion design and other interests, by just showing up and being Serena Williams for a week. It doesn't work that way, which may be a hard reality for her to accept.

"I hate to waste time, and I worked pretty hard the last week or so, but I guess you've got to work more than a week," she admitted. "I just think that I'm used to winning these kind of matches. It's hard when you go out there and can't make a shot, and you've been making them for years."

Craybas, who majored in telecommunications at the University of Florida, and now plays out of Newport Beach, Calif., will try to make it a sweep of the Williams sisters on Monday. Serena doesn't like her chances.

"I think Venus is playing well here," said the younger sister. "I'm not trying to be negative on my opponent or anything, but I think Venus will pretty much win the next round and go from there."

Serena is not sure if she will stay and cheer her on. She summed up her Wimbledon trip this way: "I think I was better off staying home, to be honest." But she vowed to be back, and in better shape, for the U.S. Open when August turns to September.

"I definitely think it's important for me to practice harder than I have been" she said. "I've never been big on practicing. I've just kind of been all about playing. I love getting out there and playing matches, so I think I'm going to have to do a little more practicing. … I definitely feel by the U.S. Open, I'll be in hopefully a lot better shape. Obviously, I'll be practicing until then. I definitely think I'll be ready for that."

It sounds as if she may have learned a lesson – albeit a painful one, salted in tears.

Barry Lorge, former Washington Post staff writer and sports editor/columnist of The San Diego Union, has covered tennis in more than 25 countries on five continents. He co-authored the section on tennis in the Encyclopaedia Britannica.