Their exit from the tournament, without a set between them yesterday, at least demonstrated that the women's game is not quite the turkey shoot it might have seemed, had one of them gone on to a tenth title in 12 years. But it was always a bit ambitious, to expect Serena and Venus Williams to perceive that bigger picture themselves. Asked to do so, Serena was withering. "Yeah, I'm super happy I lost," she said. "Go, women's tennis."
The two sisters had won all 20 of their previous matches in the fourth round here. Now they had lost two in the same afternoon. It is not yet the end of an era, but it certainly felt as though two fissures had appeared in some monolithic vastness. Venus, after all, is 31; and Serena 29. Just as she had in the quarter-finals last year, Venus lost tamely 6-2, 6-3 to Tsvetana Pironkova; while Serena was beaten 6-3, 7-6 in an engrossing encounter with Marion Bartoli.
The fact is that either sister, to win this time, would have needed to win more matches in a fortnight than they had completed between them since January. Both had only resurfaced at Eastbourne, Venus having disappeared since the Australian Open, and Serena after treading on glass in a Munich restaurant 49 weeks previously. Her various problems since put her in fear of her very life, but these congenital winners could find little solace in new perspectives here.
Serena, admittedly, had wept with relief when surviving the first round, and there were no tears this time. "I'm more devastated than ever," she protested. "I'm just a much better actress now."
It would be wrong, however, not to acknowledge Bartoli as a legitimate challenger. Four years ago she stunned Justine Henin, then the world No 1, before losing to Venus in the final. She has just made the last four at Roland Garros, and managed to overcome illness in the previous round. In the process, she notoriously ordered her parents from the stands, but was full of decorous apologies after they cheered her on yesterday.
It was gruelling even to watch. A smothering, flat glare fell upon Court One. Serena completed the warm-up in a cardigan, but was mistaken if she imagined that her opponent might be intimidated by this show of cool. For her own part, Bartoli appeared to be having grievous difficulty in keeping warm. She could not keep still for a moment. Between points, she displayed a fascinating and extensive collection of tics and rituals.
Sometimes, she would still be simulating full-blooded rallies even as Serena was on the point of service. On her own serve, as she waited for the balls to be bounced towards her, she resembled a jogger waiting for the lights to change. And her service is itself an extraordinary thing, a splayed and gawky procedure that suddenly resolves itself into a fleeting, statuesque elegance.
It was difficult to resist anxiety. She was clearly pretty invincible with an invisible ball. But shouldn't she perhaps be conserving a little energy to deal with those flaring streaks of yellow booming out of Serena's racket? Even as the fury of her tennis began to gain her the advantage, it seemed a pity to risk keeling over in a dead faint on match point.
In contrast to this cat on a hot tin roof, Serena introduced the menace of a panther to her slow, easy movement between points. Certainly she professed immunity to the curious behaviour of her opponent afterwards. "I really focus on me out there," she said. "I rarely see my opponent. Often I look up and wonder, look at the score to see who I'm playing."
But Bartoli was making rather more forcible claims on her attention. In a nutshell, her game-plan appeared to be run hard – and hit harder. She has a pathological disgust for the tennis ball sent into her court. She chases it down, both hands welded to the racket, and banishes it as though it carried some perilous contagion. Whenever Serena missed a first serve, Bartoli marched boldly inside the baseline for her next.
It is not as if she has an especially formidable build. Instead, it all came from within. And we would see the size of her heart at various, critical junctions of this match – never more so, perhaps, than when she regrouped to win the tie-break after proving too diffident to close out the match on her own serve. That was no mean feat, given that this was also when Serena – the cornered panther – dug out her best and most desperate tennis.
In timing and mobility, Williams had been looking vulnerable throughout. Essentially, it was her serve that was keeping her alive. After breaking it in the sixth game of the opening set, Bartoli had breezed through the next game to love. But her next service game, to seal the set, proved a much graver test of mettle. She had to save three break points before finally sealing the set with an ace.
It was a similar story in a tense, stretched second set. Bartoli broke at the perfect moment, in the 11th game, but then produced some horribly limp second serves. Williams saved two match points, and another shortly afterwards, before breaking back. Bartoli was entitled to enter the tie-break as a crushed spirit. When Williams salvaged two more match points, you sensed no way back if Bartoli let it slip now. But Bartoli's morale was sustained by her excellence; and Williams, conversely, could not get away with sheer mental strength.
As for Venus, her game was strewn with errors. It was all over in 75 minutes. She wore a bereaved air afterwards. "Definitely not our best day," she said. "I think, you know, we both envisioned this day going a little bit different. When you haven't played as many matches, you have to focus very hard on every point. I think I did a good job on that in the first three matches. But today I really kind of let it go."
Asked whether it was a significant moment in their shared hegemony, perhaps the beginning of the end, Serena demurred. "I don't know," she said. "Like, I'm still here. I plan on doing better."