A Decade Later, Jill Craybas Treasures Her Upset Of Serena Williams
What may be unexpected is the moment she chooses.
"It was a point that went really, really long, an unbelievable point that I ended up losing," Craybas recalled of the 2005 third-round match. "But the crowd was so loud and it was such a great point, and I remember looking up at the sky afterward and thinking, 'Oh my god, this is what I play for.'
"Looking back now, I think it's pretty cool I felt that way even though I lost the point. It was one of the best moments of my career."
Craybas' 6-3, 7-6 (4) victory over Williams 10 years ago today was also one of the biggest upsets in the 20-time Grand Slam champion's career, the earliest she had exited a major since 1999 and one that left her in tears during her news conference.
At 23, Williams was already a two-time Wimbledon champ and had won her seventh Grand Slam title at the Australian Open in January that year. But she had not won a tournament since then. And after a straight-set loss in the Italian Open to Francesca Schiavone the month before, Williams had withdrawn from the French Open with a stress fracture in her ankle.
In her first- and second-round Wimbledon matches, Williams needed three sets to defeat players ranked 104th and 124th.
Craybas, who was a week and a half short of her 31st birthday and ranked 85th in the world, recalled having "the worst practice of my career" before the Williams match. In their previous meeting a year earlier, she had managed to take just one game off Serena in the quarterfinals of the Miami Masters.
Other than reaching the third round at the Australian Open in 2004, Craybas had never advanced past the second round of a Grand Slam tournament. And in the runup to Wimbledon in '05, Craybas lost in the first round of qualifying at Birmingham and the second round of qualies at Eastbourne.
To further fuel potential nerves the day of the Williams match, Craybas remembered that they had to wait all day for 18-year-old Andy Murray's eventual five-set loss to David Nalbandian to be completed on Centre Court, where the women were scheduled to play.
And yet, Craybas said, she had never felt more relaxed.
"There was an odd calm about her," her longtime coach, Raj Chaudhuri, recalled.
He should not have been surprised, given that he had suggested she try some positive visualization. Not exactly a cutting-edge practice at the time, Craybas nonetheless took the advice to heart.
"I was constantly seeing myself winning match point against her, over and over and over before the match," Craybas said. "I tried to do it all the time, throughout the day, even in the transportation car on the way to the hotel. I would picture it any time I thought about it and as I fell asleep. So once I went on court, it just sort of happened."
Craybas, who had won the NCAA singles title at Florida nine years earlier, laughed. "When I look back now," she said, "I don't know why I didn't do it all the time."
Aiding her confidence, Craybas was coming off a straight-set victory over 27th-ranked Marion Bartoli in the second round. She had also played Williams once before at Wimbledon, two years earlier on Centre Court (losing 6-3, 6-3), which she said helped to calm her.
"I really wanted Serena to win because I wanted another opportunity to play her," Craybas said. "You always want to play the best players in the world."
When the Murray match lingered and the women were switched to Court 2, known as the Graveyard of Champions because of its history of upsets, Craybas was ready. "I remember being really excited to play," she said.
That Serena was not 100 percent physically did not enter into the strategy.
"There was all kinds of talk that she was not playing her best," Chaudhuri said. "But to be honest, we didn't spend any energy on what she was doing because Serena had proven time and time again that she was a great champion and, even as recently as this year's French Open, knows how to summon the power to coax the best tennis out of herself at the most important moments."
The 5-foot-3 Craybas had a simple plan. "I relied a lot on my speed to get a lot of balls back," she said. "I knew against a player like Serena that I had to take some risks and go for it on returns. Any time I had the chance on a short ball, I was going to go for it, which I was used to doing."
Chaudhuri "pounded" serves at her in practice, trying to acclimate her to the biggest weapon in women's tennis, and the grass deadened Williams' serve enough to help Craybas take the ball earlier.
By the time the men's match was completed on Centre Court, Williams-Craybas was getting interesting and Court 2 was packed to capacity, which was then 2,192 plus nearly 800 standing-room spots.
What they saw was a frustrated former champion. Williams had lost her first five service games and she flung her racket when she pushed a volley long to lose the opening game of the second set.
"By then it was getting dark," Chaudhuri recalled, "and Jill was up a break but had a poor service game, and it's the kind of moment where you think, 'Well, this is the moment where Serena doesn't let you off the hook for making a mistake like that.'"
Indeed, Williams fought back from 2-4 down to force a second-set tiebreaker and took a 2-0 lead in the tiebreak. But with Williams shouting to herself on each winner and Chaudhuri praying for the light to hold out as the clock crawled past 9 p.m., Craybas reeled off the next five points and closed out the match when Williams netted the final two points.
"It was pretty important to get through that breaker," Chaudhuri said. "If it went to a third set, they probably would have stopped it at that point."
With the middle Sunday a dark day at Wimbledon, the match would not have resumed until Monday. "I feel like I would have lost the momentum," Craybas conceded.
Instead, Craybas moved on to the fourth round, where lost to Venus Williams, who was at the top of her game and was on the way to her third Wimbledon title.
I was constantly seeing myself winning match point against her, over and over and over before the match.Jill Craybas
But it is the Serena match that will remain with Craybas, a highlight in a 17-year career in which she was ranked as high as 39th in singles (2006), earned one singles title and five in doubles, and appeared in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. She retired two years ago, at age 39.
The Serena match stays with her coach as well.
"To see her gather her faith and stick to it on one of the greatest stages and against one of the greatest players in tennis was one of my most gratifying moments as her coach," Chaudhuri said.
Now coaching junior players and dabbling in radio, Craybas called leaving the game after the 2013 US Open "a really hard transition, harder than a lot of people realize. ... It's what I've known my whole life, so knowing what to do next is scary. It's exciting too, but in the beginning it's very difficult. I wouldn't say I'm quite over it yet ..."
Craybas remembered a gracious Serena congratulating her at net that night 10 years ago, and the veteran American was thoughtful as well, containing her glee in postmatch interviews before celebrating the victory quietly with a midnight pizza back at her hotel .
It was a great moment, to be sure, but not the one that would stay with Craybas all these years.
"So much in your career is about the experiences and particular moments you focus on and remember most clearly," she said of the one point among many the day she beat Serena Williams, the one that seemed to last forever and caused her to gaze at the sky in gratitude.
"Obviously, the goal of every athlete is to win and succeed. But those are the moments you take with you."