The day the women's favorites fell
WIMBLEDON, England -- They are big fans of rank and position over here on this side of the pond.
The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge sat in the Royal Box on Wednesday, chatting easily with Billie Jean King. Kate and Wills watched No. 4 seed Andy Murray perform swift surgery on Frenchman Richard Gasquet. This was good and proper because, in the hierarchical scheme of things, it was supposed to happen.
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In the last few years, men's tennis has taken on a British tinge, as order has descended. At the recent French Open, all four of the men's top seeds reached the semifinals. The women, on the other hand, have been something less than predictable. It can be debated whether this is a good thing or bad, but it has made for some tumultuous days for the WTA.
Over the weekend, the ubiquitous British oddsmakers recalibrated their favorites. In a span of two hours during the fourth round Wednesday, three of the top five were dispatched from the tournament.
First, it was Serena Williams -- the leading favorite at 3-to-1 -- falling to Marion Bartoli of France, 6-3, 7-6 (6). Next, No. 1 seed Caroline Wozniacki was bounced by the irrepressible Dominika Cibulkova 1-6, 7-6 (5), 7-5. Finally, Venus Williams fell to Tsvetana Pironkova 6-2, 6-3, precisely the same score the Bulgarian dropped on her in last year's quarterfinals.
"Definitely not our best day," Venus said. "I think we both envisioned this day going a little bit different. I think we both hit the ground running, coming back as fast as we could."
Maybe too fast?
"Tough day at the office for the former champions and No. 1," said Mary Joe Fernandez, the U.S. Fed Cup captain. "I don't think anyone saw this coming. There are a lot of new possibilities, that's for sure."
Tuesday's quarterfinals look more like something from the Italian Open -- or perhaps Moscow. In truth, it's all Ova.
Maria Sharapova -- the only Wimbledon champion left -- is joined by Petra Kvitova, Pironkova and Cibulkova. Also through are Victoria Azarenka from Belarus, Germany's Sabine Lisicki and unseeded Austrian Tamira Paszek. They are all Europeans, marking the first time in 98 years -- when all eight came from Great Britain -- there's been an all-European quarter here at Wimbledon. With the exception of Sharapova, none of them were considered top favorites coming in.
Where did they all go? Let us review:
• Kim Clijsters, the WTA's No. 2-ranked player, pulled out before the tournament after injuring her right foot in the Netherlands.
• No. 2 seed Vera Zvonareva lost to Pironkova in the third round.
• No. 3 seed Li Na fell to Lisicki in the second round.
The Williams sisters fall into a different category.
They have won at the All England Club nine times between them, so nostalgia may have been a factor in fashioning them as serious contenders for the title this time around. After winning here last year, two-time defending champion Serena missed 49 weeks with some harrowing (and well-documented) issues. Venus, too, struggled with injuries and missed more than five months.
Their games were a little sketchy in the early going, but conventional wisdom suggested they would rally in the second week when they got their feet underneath them and worked themselves into match shape. On this day, the sisters ran into players with better fitness, technique and -- on the surface at least -- desire. Bartoli was fiery and, in some ways, the player that Serena might have hoped to avoid. A finalist here in 2007, Bartoli hits the ball extremely flat and takes it early. Her shots skid low on the grass and are difficult to pick up, even with slice.
"She should always play like this and she would be in the top five at minimum," Serena said. "It's like, 'Wow, where is this player throughout the rest of the year?'"
Bartoli, who forged a total of five match points, has now won nine straight matches on grass; that recent experience was a difference-maker against Serena. After her first-round match, Serena cried happy tears. After her exit, she didn't exactly seem crushed.
"I think I did really well just being able to come back and play," Serena said. "I can only get better. And that can potentially be really scary, because I can only go up from here."
It is worth noting that Bethanie Mattek-Sands will be the new No. 1 American when the rankings come out next week. By contrast Serena, the No. 8 seed here, will fall to around No. 170.
Venus has now lost to the 23-year-old three times in Grand Slam events. Afterward, Venus made it seem like a coincidence.
"It's kind of inexplicable why I manage to play some of my worst tennis against her," she sniffed. "It's not like I'm intimidated at all by anybody on tour."
There was a time when the Williams sisters did intimidate their opponents. Their swagger and their outsized serves were worth a few games every time out. Now, with Venus 30 and Serena approaching that age, that's not enough. On this day -- the third time in a Grand Slam that they've gone out on the same day -- their serves couldn't cover up for other deficiencies.
The same goes for Wozniacki, who lost in the fourth round here for the third straight year. You could see her loss to Cibulkova coming. Wozniacki has now spent more time (37 weeks) with the No. 1 ranking than any other non-Grand Slam singles winner.
"If Maria doesn't win it," said Fernandez, "we're going to have a fresh face as champion. That doesn't happen too often around here."
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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