WIMBLEDON, England -- It was a jarring sight, like seeing a lioness on the prowl abruptly declawed in midstride.
Serena Williams has showed flashes of emotional vulnerability in this comeback season, admitting how low she sank following the murder of her half sister and a competitive lull, recently describing herself as having been "at the bottom of the barrel" during some dark months last year.
But never has Williams -- who usually embodies power and intimidation -- seemed so physically exposed as she did late in the second set of her fourth-round match Monday against Daniela Hantuchova.
Tied 5-all after winning the first set, Williams had just lost a point on Hantuchova's serve when she winced and pounded her racket on the visibly bulging muscle in her left calf as if she were smacking a balky soda machine. But it didn't work.
Williams crumpled in pain on Centre Court with what was later diagnosed as acute muscle spasms. She howled in agony and reflexively pushed trainer Amber Donaldson away at one point as Donaldson tried to massage the knot out. A few minutes later, Williams had to use her racket to prop herself up and hobble to her chair, where she remained standing as Donaldson used a numbing spray and tape to try to stabilize her.
Her parents, Oracene and Richard, were also standing in their courtside seats, their faces mirror images of concern. Sister Venus looked stricken. Hantuchova made a brief visit, bundled in a sweater and towel.
Serena wiped her eyes as she limped back to the baseline. From there, the match turned into Wimbledon's version of "Wild Kingdom," the old television show that repeatedly demonstrated there are two kinds of creatures on the planet: predators and lunch.
In this Darwinian soap opera, Hantuchova could not close in on Williams when there was blood in the water. Williams healed quickly with the help of that powerful painkiller, adrenaline, and went on to win 6-2, 6-7 (2), 6-2 and earn a quarterfinal shot at world No. 1 Justine Henin.
"I just decided at one point, you know, it was over and I was going to die trying," Williams said. "I figured my heart wouldn't give out, so I had a good chance of making it."
Williams didn't contest the two points Hantuchova needed to win that game; incredibly, she won the next even though half her serves rocketed short of the net. As clouds gathered overhead during the ensuing tiebreak, Richard Williams rose and pointed skyward.
That's generally a religious reference. This time, it was meteorological. "Her dad did it," said Serena's current beau, actor Jackie Long, who was seated with the family. "He made it rain. He's the rain man."
The two-hour stoppage in play gave Williams the chance to apply ice and massage and guzzle fluids. But the seeds of her victory had already been sown. At a time when she should have been merciless, Hantuchova hadn't run Williams side-to-side in the tiebreak, and her coach was observed advising her to do just that when the weather cleared.
"I think at some point every player senses something about their opponent, and I did get something," Williams said. "But I was always really just focused on what I was going to do.
"Going for broke is all I could do pretty much. You know, I have that game. It was good that the rain came. It was good that it was on grass because the court stays low, you can hit hard and pretty much go for winners."
It was all good.
Williams barely contested the end of the tiebreak when play resumed, but Hantuchova still couldn't assert herself, although she didn't crumble right away. As a largely Williams-sympathetic crowd cheered every serve that fell good, the Slovak had the temerity to correctly challenge an apparent ace. The Hawk-Eye system showed it a hair outside the line and Williams swatted a forehand into the net on the next exchange, provoking her to jump up and down and tomahawk her racket into the turf.
In the fourth game of the third set, up 30-0, Hantuchova chipped a drop shot to Williams' forehand. Williams chased with something slightly less than her usual explosiveness and dumped the ball short. It turned out to be the perfect tonic for what ailed Williams. Beware of throwing popcorn at a wounded diva.
"I don't know why that particularly made me so upset, but it was just like, you know what, this is it," Williams said. "I'm not going down today. I mean, no. There's no way. Maybe it was just something in me that I needed to give me a push. But I would have absolutely done the same thing, if not more.
"Maybe it was just the wrong play at that time against me."
Indeed. Williams lost that game but proceeded to run the table as Hantuchova looked alternately unfocused and cowed. The hyper-hydrated Williams began lobbying for a toilet break before one of Hantuchova's service games, but umpire Kader Nouni told her she would have to wait until a changeover.
"I've never had to ask to go to the bathroom," Williams griped loudly enough to be picked up by the chair microphone, but as Hantuchova started to spray backhand errors, that urgent call of nature took a backseat to another, stronger instinct.
"In the third set, I don't think there was anything wrong at all," Hantuchova said. "I think she was moving very well. I don't think there can be too much wrong when you serve 120 miles an hour. It was definitely a tough set but I still felt like I had my chances, but I didn't take them."
Laura Granville, whose run ended in the fourth round with a loss to 31st-seeded Michaella Krajicek of the Netherlands, said she empathized with Hantuchova's position.
"I think that's really difficult because automatically you tighten up a little bit because you feel like you should be winning," Granville said. "You feel like you should be killing the person. Then when you're not and you start maybe losing, it's really hard to deal with. So it's a tough situation to be in. It's really tough."
Williams said she'd "never dealt with such pain," but the clear advantage she had in that situation was that any physical discomfort pales compared to the anger and letdown she experiences when she loses for whatever reason.
A reporter asked her how she would have felt if she'd lost playing a similarly gimpy opponent. Williams smiled at him coyly and said, "If she was Serena Williams, I wouldn't feel that bad."
A few minutes earlier, she said she hadn't expected to be able to get up when she went down. Thing is, everyone else does, and that makes her the most dangerous player in the game.
Bonnie DeSimone is a freelancer who is covering Wimbledon for ESPN.com.