Serena self-destructs as clouds gather over sisters

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Dark clouds hovered over the All England Club throughout Saturday but it was not until 9.07pm that the sky caved in on Serena Williams. And on the evidence of her 3-6, 6-7 third-round defeat to Jill Craybas - and a tearful, confused, post-match press conference - there will be no new dawn in her career soon.

At the moment of defeat, she seemed relieved, and even managed a smile for her opponent. The sight of the two of them, meeting at the Court Two net, highlighted how improbable this result had been.

Serena, 23, twice a former champion here, stood on one side, 5ft 9in tall and with the physique of a line-backer. According to the official tour handbook she weighs 9st 6lb. It seems a conservative estimate.

Craybas, the world No 85, who turns 31 next Monday, curtseyed on the other side, her hands clasped almost in supplication. She is 5ft 3in and weighs 8st 8lb, and there is no way that 12lb of padding would make her anything like Serena's size.

As Serena took Craybas's hand, it was easy to imagine her tossing her over her shoulder. Craybas had metaphorically done just that to Serena, although the match statistics alone showed Serena was the author of her own downfall.

Craybas held her own serve just twice in a nine-game first set. Serena did not hold at all. Her movement was limited. She made 34 unforced errors, 17 in each set. Even when the second set went to a tie-break and Serena took a 2-0 lead, she let it slip with four unforced errors.

Craybas - who has had a largely undistinguished career, being knocked out of 17 Grand Slams in the first round - sealed her victory on her first match point. Or rather, Serena sealed it, - hitting yet another forehand into the net.

Another Williams, Venus, the champion here in 2000 and 2001, lies in wait for Craybas today in the quarter-finals. Venus defeated Daniela Hantuchova in straight sets to get through, and it would take another titanic upset for her to lose as well. Not that there seems to be much sympathy from the tournament organisers: they have also put that match on Court Two, the so-called Graveyard of Champions.

Serena, the former world No 1, said that she was at a loss to explain her performance. How did she feel? "Horrible." Could she elaborate? "No." Could she say what she thought about her game out there? "The only words I could use are all foul. It wouldn't be proper for me to use those words."

Did she think Craybas played well? "I think she just got balls back. She didn't do anything. She didn't have to do anything exceptionally well today. She just pretty much had to show up and I couldn't win a service game in the first set. Then it was just downhill." Then she burst into tears, one of several times in the interview that she required a borrowed handkerchief. Only once did she come close to admitting something had been awry in her preparations for the tournament, saying she had "never been big on practising". She added that she wished she had stayed at home.

The precise reasons for the Williams sisters' descent from all-conquering duo to mortal also-rans has long been subject to debate. Success became too easy, says one theory. Another says they were both badly affected by the murder of their older sister, Yetunde, in September 2003.

Mostly it is their outside interests, which take a huge amount of their time and attention, that are blamed. For Serena these include acting jobs, fashion design and, most recently, being followed since last year by a film crew for a reality show on ABC Television. It debuts on US screens on 20 July, and is being marketed with the tagline: "Get off the court and into their lives."

The reality of Serena's sporting life right now is that top-level tennis - and all the tedious, painful, exhausting, essential hard work required to remain the best - is not her top priority, whatever she says in public. Even those who have been close to the family and worked with them for years were talking yesterday of the result on Saturday being a "serious wake-up call".

Whether Serena can respond - or even wants to - remains to be seen.