- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 26, 2005

WIMBLEDON, England — Serena Williams steered a wild backhand wide to make a growing deficit even more daunting, looked up at the slate sky, and screamed at herself, “What am I doing out here?”

The short answer: playing poorly.

The more complete explanation: gasping for air after long points, favoring an injured left ankle, and making so many mistakes that the 85th-ranked player with a 9-23 career record at Grand Slams truly believed she could upset a seven-time major champion.

Falling a match shy of a showdown with her older sister, Williams lost 6-3, 7-6 (4) yesterday to Jill Craybas in the third round at Wimbledon, her earliest exit from a major since 1999.

“I’ve never been one to lose well,” Williams said, tugging a pink visor low over her eyes and wiping away tears. “She didn’t have to do anything exceptionally well today. She just pretty much had to show up.”

Craybas hadn’t managed to win more than three games in a set in two previous losses to Williams, but those were in 2003 and 2004, when each was a different player.

“Previously, when I played her, when I saw her across the court, I was probably thinking to myself, ‘Oh, my God. I’m playing the No.1 player in the world,’” said Craybas, a 30-year-old from Rhode Island who won the 1996 NCAA singles title as a senior at Florida.

“And today, as soon as I walked on the court, I just felt like we were equals.”

Williams almost didn’t make the trip to England, having played only one match in nearly 2 months because of an ankle she said was slightly broken. She won the Australian Open at the start of the season, but was just 8-4 since and without a title when Wimbledon began. There were signs she wasn’t at her best, going three sets against each of her first two opponents — both ranked out of the top 100 — for the first time at any Slam.

“I think I was better off staying home,” said Williams, who made 34 unforced errors and was broken each of the first five times she served.

Up in the stands behind a baseline sat her father Richard, snapping photos, and Venus, who beat No.20 Daniela Hantuchova of Slovakia 7-5, 6-3 earlier in the day.

The Williams-Craybas match originally was scheduled for Centre Court but when others there went long, the players were sent out in the overcast evening to Court2, known as the “Graveyard of Champions.” Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe and Pete Sampras — in his final match at the All England Club — all lost at the intimate venue not far from the clattering china of the members’ restaurant.

Now add to that list Williams, who won the tournament in 2002 and 2003 and lost in last year’s final to Maria Sharapova.

The defending champion led six Russian women into the round of 16 by beating Katarina Srebotnik 6-2, 6-4. No.1 Lindsay Davenport, No.8 Nadia Petrova, No.12 Mary Pierce, and No.15 Kim Clijsters also advanced. Two-time defending champion Roger Federer and the man he beat in last year’s final, Andy Roddick, moved into the fourth round. So did 2002 Wimbledon finalist David Nalbandian, who ended the run of the last British player in the tournament, 18-year-old Andrew Murray; 2004 French Open champion Juan Carlos Ferrero; No.15 Guillermo Coria; and 19-year-old Richard Gasquet.

Davenport and Clijsters will meet tomorrow in a matchup fit for a final. The same would have been said of a Williams vs. Williams faceoff in the round of 16; after all, they’ve both been No.1, and they combined to win nine of 13 Grand Slam titles in one stretch, playing each other in seven of those finals.

Venus looked good at times and lost at others yesterday. She hasn’t dropped a set so far, but even if the Williams aura has dissipated, Hantuchova might be one player against whom it still holds sway. She’s 0-10 against the sisters.

A tight match was 5-5 in the first set when Hantuchova took a 40-love lead on her serve. Then she quickly fell apart, double-faulting to begin a run of nine straight points and five straight games for Venus.

After going ahead 3-0 in the second set, Venus allowed Hantuchova to get to 3-3, before turning her game back on.

“I just maybe lost focus a little bit and missed a few shots,” Venus said, “but I was able to regain it, which, you know, is the important part.”

Her sister never quite did the same against Craybas, who only once before had been to the third round of a major — and never beyond. But she’s been working the past six months with her coach, Raj Chaudhuri, on her confidence, on “believing in yourself and trusting yourself and going after your shots and not backing down,” Craybas said.

That showed up in the lengthy rallies she stayed in with Serena, hitting flat shots to extend points. Repeatedly, Williams would crack first during baseline exchanges, sometimes dropping to one knee while trying to will balls over the net.

After sending a swinging backhand volley long to get broken in the opening game of the second set, Williams threw her hands up, then dropped her racket. After an 18-stroke point ended with both players at the net, Williams slowly walked back to the baseline and stood near the wall, her chest heaving.

Williams went ahead 2-0 in the tiebreaker, but Craybas’ forehand clipped the net and fell in on the next point to start a run that put her up 5-2. After cutting the deficit to 5-4, Williams slapped two strokes into the net to end it.

“It’s hard when you go out there and you can’t make a shot,” Williams said, “and you’ve been making them for years.”

Now Craybas gets a shot at a Williams-Williams double, facing Venus tomorrow.

“I haven’t thought about Venus yet, actually,” Craybas said. “I’m just trying to savor the moment right now.”

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