Double whammy for Williams sisters
WIMBLEDON, England -- A month ago, no one was sure the recuperating Williams sisters would even play at Wimbledon. In the course of only three matches, they became favorites. Over the weekend, British bookmakers, often on the money, installed Serena as the leading contender.
It was far from inconceivable, then, to think the siblings would meet in a fifth Wimbledon final.
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Not this time.
Serena lost to Marion Bartoli 6-3, 7-6 (6) on the hottest day of the year in England, with temperatures topping 90 degrees -- as sizzling as some of Bartoli's accurate, angled two-handed returns. A little later in the fourth round, Venus fell to the unpredictable Tsvetana Pironkova 6-2, 6-3 at the All England Club for the second straight year.
The double whammy rekindled memories of the 2008 French Open, when the duo was ousted on the same day in the third round. Clay has never been as kind to them as grass, mind you.
The earlier-than-expected losses mean Bethanie Mattek-Sands, better known for her fashion statements, will be the new American No. 1 after Wimbledon.
"Definitely not our best day," Venus said. "We both envisioned this day going different."
In the past, no one has been better at returning from injury than Serena. More often than not, lack of preparation wasn't pivotal, with her heavy serves and heart compensating. Venus, though not as prolific as Serena, was on her favorite surface, having collected five Wimbledon titles.
"I think I did really well, you know, just being able to come back and play and win some matches, and just really play tough," Serena told reporters.
The slightly eccentric Bartoli, who divides opinion, even in her native France, sparkled at the same venue where she lost the Wimbledon final to Venus in 2007. Bartoli more than matched Serena on serve, a rarity, fending off three break points in the final game of the first set with timely deliveries. She had 10 aces to Serena's eight and won more points behind the first serve.
Bartoli's form has been staggering of late, going 18-2 in her past 20 matches. Destiny is accompanying a fitter Bartoli at Wimbledon, given she saved three match points in the second round and rallied again in the third, prevailing 9-7 in the deciding set versus Flavia Pennetta. This with a stomach illness.
"I think Serena probably would have beaten a lot of other players," said U.S. Fed Cup captain and ESPN analyst Mary Joe Fernandez.
Some felt Serena had destiny on her side, too.
On Saturday, Serena revealed that, besides suffering from a pulmonary embolism, hematoma and undergoing two foot surgeries, she fell off her bike in October, causing facial injuries and a nasty scar on her serving shoulder. It was about time for some good fortune.
But against Bartoli, who is a clear step up in quality, Serena's time away from the court finally caught up with her. The Frenchwoman snapped the 13-time Grand Slam champion's perfect 9-0 record in the fourth round here. Serena's three previous defeats early in the second week at Wimbledon had come against Venus, Justine Henin and Jennifer Capriati, winners of a combined 17 major titles.
Bartoli, despite her upturn, has none.
In the first set, Serena had particular trouble with her crosscourt forehand, spraying balls well wide on at least three occasions. Never the most technically sound player or perfect with her footwork, her timing was badly off. In rallies, Bartoli captured 49 points to Serena's 33, a substantial differential.
"I thought her footwork still wasn't as sharp as it needed to be," Fernandez said. "It just didn't seem like she could impose her game on Bartoli."
The serve, as always, kept her in it, although one cleared the doubles alley and another sailed into the bottom of the net. Rust. Serena's famed hunger and champion's spirit prolonged the affair as she saved four match points, which gave her fans hope of another miraculous Grand Slam comeback.
It wasn't to be.
The past year was a hurdle too high for even Serena to overcome.
"It's great to have her back," Fernandez said. "That's the most important thing. She's back, she's healthy. And I think if she stays healthy, she'll be winning in no time."
The U.S. Open should soothe Serena, who will have much more preparation.
Even with more matches, the same perhaps can't be said of Venus, sidelined since the Australian Open with abdominal and hip complaints. Venus, who turned 31 in June, hasn't triumphed at a non-grass Slam in 10 years.
Pironkova, a journeywoman -- at every other tournament -- upped her record to 3-1 against Venus, who was 11-0 in the fourth round at SW19 herself. Pironkova returned Venus' serve with aplomb, not giving away many cheap points, gradually taking over. Venus routinely misfired off the ground.
"She started well but got a little shaky, made a few errors," Pironkova said. "I guess that's tennis."
A simple but sufficient explanation on an extraordinary day at Wimbledon.
London-based Ravi Ubha covers soccer and tennis for ESPN.com. You can follow him on Twitter.
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