Commentary

Williams sisters sent packing -- on the same day

Unraveling this loss isn't clear-cut. Just when it appeared Serena Williams was singularly focused on tennis, an apprehensive third-round performance at the French Open has left us befuddled.

Updated: May 30, 2008, 6:59 PM ET
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

Serena WilliamsAP Photo/David VincentA clearly despondent Serena Williams didn't think she would be going home quite so soon.
PARIS -- The Williams sisters have always been shrouded by the air of enigma.

Serena and Venus learned the game of tennis on the public courts in Compton, Calif., a hard, hard place more infamous for gang violence. They bypassed the traditional junior tennis system and became Grand Slam champions, fixtures in the top 10 for a decade now, on their own terms.

Just when you think you have them figured out, they have the capacity for great surprise. Just when it seemed injuries and outside interests had reduced their careers to playing character roles, Serena won the Australian Open last year and Venus took the title at Wimbledon.

On Friday, it happened again -- but not in a good way. Both of them were, shockingly, bounced from the French Open by low-seeded players who never have reached a Grand Slam quarterfinal.

Serena, who before the French Open said she had experienced her best preparation since winning the event in 2002, was, with the sudden retirement of Justine Henin, among the favorites. And yet, she lost her third-round match 6-4, 6-4 to Slovenian Katarina Srebotnik on Court Suzanne Lenglen.

More than nine hours later, in the gloaming on Court Philippe Chatrier, Venus joined her sister among the excommunicated. She fell 7-5, 6-3 to Italy's Falvia Pennetta. That third-round match ended at 9:48 p.m. local time.

Venus, like her sister before her, seemed emotionally flat and generally out of sorts. To their credit, Srebotnik and Penetta both played well enough to win.

It was only the second time in their long history that both sisters lost on the same day of a Grand Slam. There is no one left in the women's draw who has ever won the French Open.

Robby Ginepri, who plays Saturday, is the last American standing.

On the Richter scale of surprise, this day was about a 7.8.

Oracene Price, who is listed as the Williamses' coach and adviser in the WTA media guide, also is their mother. Standing in the media center outside the interview room where her youngest daughter had just shed little light in her postmatch autopsy, Price seemed baffled. Serena, she said, had not been herself since the tournament began.

"She doesn't have the mind-set right now," Price said, shaking her head. "Her confidence isn't there. I'm really trying to figure this out."

A few minutes earlier, Serena had been asked whether "puzzled" accurately described her state of mind.

"No," she said, "I'm not puzzled at all. I just don't want to be here."

It probably was the most honest, sincere thing she said.

"I felt like I was able to get into it," Serena said, "but I felt like I missed a lot of easy shots and a lot of key points that I felt like could have turned the match around. I wasn't able to capitalize on a lot of that."

True enough. Serena, playing on the sticky, shifting surface that diminishes her powerful game, seemed more awkward than usual. Her game was disjointed; everything she did seemed a tad late -- like a bad lip-synching effort.

Srebotnik, a steady player with a good forehand, is a solid clay-court player. She stayed on the baseline mostly, kept the ball in play and moved forward when the opening presented itself. Serena tried to force the issue too often at net and wound up losing 14 of 21 points going forward, the difference in the match.

Mary Joe Fernandez, who reached the 1993 final here at Roland Garros, broadcast the match for ESPN.

"It looked like she had no faith in her groundstrokes, especially her forehand," Fernandez said. "I think she came in so often because she didn't want to hit from the baseline."

[+] EnlargeVenus Williams
Patrick Kovarik/Getty ImagesVenus Williams lost in the third round of the French Open for the second straight year.
Explained Srebotnik: "Serena is a big hitter, and she likes to have the perfect hitting zone. So I tried to mix it up with slice on my backhand side and tried to move her there. And then on the forehand side, I tried to play aggressive and go to the net as soon as I could.

"That was the rhythm that I was trying to break her, get her on the wrong foot and stuff like that."

The critical point in the ninth game of the second set came from an ill-advised drop shot, which found the net, and Serena lost her serve. She survived two match points, but she missed wide with a running cross-court forehand and lost to Srebotnik for the first time in four matches.

Serena came to Roland Garros with a sterling record of 23-2 and 9-2 on clay, but she withdrew from her quarterfinal match in Rome two weeks ago with a back injury. On Friday, she said it wasn't a factor.

"I don't think that had any effect at all," Serena said. "It's almost perfect.

After a year in the wilderness outside the top 40, the Williams sisters both returned the WTA's top 10 last year and remain there today. They have won a total of 14 Grand Slam singles titles, and it would be foolish to believe a 15th -- when health, motivation and the local atmospheric conditions allow -- is out of the question.

As soon, for instance, as next month's Wimbledon.

"[Serena]'s really hurting about this one," Price said. "I really think she'll come out swinging.

"Maybe that's a good thing."

Venus' preparation for the French Open was, as usual, spare. She played a single clay tournament coming in, Rome, losing in the quarterfinals to Jelena Jankovic.

When Venus walked up the steps from the locker room to the court, she had an exceedingly sad look on her face. Did Serena's loss adversely affect her?

"Obviously, I'm sad when she loses," Venus said later. "Going into the match, I was definitely focused on that moment in time, not anything that happened earlier in the day.

"[Pennetta] played well, and that was the main problem. I felt a little inconsistent. I think I was upset after losing the first set. I let it get away from me."

Serena and Venus were taught by their parents to be inquisitive, independent and well rounded. While they catch a lot of flak for not always being focused on the ball in play, they do, as Price said, "have a lot going on in their lives."

Certainly, outside events have conspired to reduce the force of their careers, but isn't it possible that the broad palette of interests has extended those careers?

Serena is 26, and Venus turns 28 next month. Henin and Kim Clijsters, who both won Grand Slams and reached the No. 1 ranking, left the game at the ages of 23 and 25, respectively.

The Williams sisters, Price said, won't be retiring any time soon.

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.