Venus avenges sister Serena's loss

WIMBLEDON, England – It was night and day for Jill Craybas against the Williams sisters on Court 2 at Wimbledon.

Venus Williams played radiantly in brilliant sunlight on Monday afternoon, demolishing the same opponent who was the beneficiary of her younger sister Serena's meltdown on the same court in dying daylight on Saturday evening. Venus, seeded No. 14, moved into the quarterfinals and closer to another potential sisterly "avenger" assignment in the semis against defending champion Maria Sharpova – a 6-4, 6-2 winner over No. 16 seed Nathalie Dechy on Monday.

Serena, the No. 4 seed in the ladies' singles, had dissolved in tears after losing to Craybas, a steady but unspectacular fellow American, 6-3, 7-6 (4). It was Serena's earliest exit from the All England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club since her 1998 Wimbledon debut, her earliest departure from a Grand Slam tournament since the 1999 French Open. It was clearly one of the most devastating defeats ever for a woman who won seven major titles before her 24th birthday.

Craybas, ranked No. 85 at age 30, was the lowest-ranked player to beat Serena since her second professional match, eight years ago. Even though she was short on fitness and match play after missing this year's French Open with an ankle injury, Serena always expects to beat a player of Craybas' caliber under any conditions, and her ragged performance left her sobbing, as uncontrolled as her strokes had been.

Enter Venus, seeded 14th. She was smiling so brightly after her 6-0, 6-2 rout of Craybas, she seemed to outshine the sun. The contrast with Saturday's match was striking. Venus totally dominated, save for one bad patch of two games to begin the second set. At the finish, she danced a little pirouette, waving to all corners of what historically has been known as Wimbledon's most notorious upset court.

That reputation, reinforced when Serena stumbled so badly there, was no help this time to Craybas. She was, quite literally, helpless against Venus' onslaught.

"I think she was really fired up today, and she played great," Craybas said. "She came up with some really great shots at key moments, and she just kept the pressure on the whole time."

Craybas summoned a trainer to retape a pulled stomach muscle she suffered in the second round and that had pained her when she served, but she acknowledged that neither that injury, nor she, were factors in the match. Venus was just moving and grooving too well on a day that appeared to bring her great joy on the court where her sister had wept.

Venus' only dark moments came later, when she was asked about Serena's travails and emotional state. She shed no light on either, only saying that Serena won't be coming to the tennis grounds in SW 19 again during the tournament. Not even if big sis is in the final. She'd probably watch it on television, Venus said.

Is Serena still in London?

"I don't know if I'm allowed to say," Venus allowed, mysteriously. "Have to clear that with Serena."

Thus began a curious give-and-take with reporters that was more weird than testy. When clarification was sought on ambiguous answers, Venus gratuitously responded: "You guys hear what you want to hear every time." There were vague hints of past slights, real or imagined, and overtones of the "it's us against the world" mentality, frequently fostered by father-coach Richard Williams, that has occasionally overshadowed the sisters' amazing accomplishments. Frankly, that whole nonsense wore thin long ago.

One thing was clear: no matter how miserable Serena's Wimbledon was, Venus is playing better than she has in a long time. She seems healthy. She hasn't really been tested yet, but should be in the quarterfinals Tuesday by Mary Pierce, the rejuvenated French Open runner-up who advanced with a 6-3, 6-1 romp over Flavia Pennetta.

But based on her form Monday, Venus must be considered a force in the tournament and a threat to dethrone Sharapova, whose 6-1, 6-4 upset of Serena in last year's final remains a wound that Serena keeps fresh by picking at the scab. She keeps repeating that she lost it more than Sharapova won it, which is never a gracious tack to take.

If Venus can get past Pierce, stay tuned for what would be a fascinating Williams-Sharapova sequel, this time with the older Willams sister, champion of both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in 2000-2001, having a go at restoring the family fortunes at the advanced age of 25.

Coming in, Venus was kind of an afterthought. The controversy that always seems to accompany Camp Williams, particularly when Richard is around, centered on whether Serena should have been seeded higher because her ranking has slipped as a result of persistent injuries. A boost from the Wimbledon seeding committee would have avoided the anticipated Williams vs. Williams showdown in the fourth round, which Craybas derailed with a big assist from Serena's shakiness.

This is the first time Venus has gone farther in a Slam singles event since the 2001 U.S. Open, where she walloped her sister in the final, 6-2, 6-4. Serena won the Open first, in 1999, but Venus had always dominated the sister act when they played head-to-head. That changed dramatically, of course, when Serena eclipsed Venus in the finals of five Grand Slam tournaments: the French Open, Wimbledon and U.S. Open in 2002, the Australian Open and Wimbledon in 2003.

On Monday, Venus came out firing on all cylinders. She was moving well, thumping the ball with thunderous grunts, but unlike Serena on Saturday, keeping it consistently over the net and in the court. She served and returned serve with audacious authority, and won 13 of 14 points when she ventured to the net. Her only loose games put her down 0-2 in the second set, but those were the only ones she lost. For the match, she hammered 28 outright winners and made 15 unforced errors against the retriever who had let Serena beat herself.

Venus played with a vengeance, but when asked if she was particularly stoked to beat the player who had ousted her sister, she soft-balled for the first time: "It's probably a really big challenge mentally to play both Serena and me in a row. So I guess I had a good position to be the second sister," she said. Later she added, "It's hard to say exactly, but I definitely would like to do it a little bit for my sister – but mostly for me."

Only five formidable players – Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario, Steffi Graf, Martina Hingis, Kim Clijsters and Lindsay Davenport – have ever beaten both Williams sisters in the same tournament. Craybas is certainly not in their professional company.

"They both play similarly," Craybas said of the celebrated sisters. "They both take the ball early and they both hit the ball with great depth and great power." But from Serena on Saturday to Venus on Monday was the ridiculous to the sublime.

Venus said she just wants "to keep my level rising for each round," and kept reiterating: "I always expect to be better, always. But my whole goal is just one round at a time It's just that simple."

Pierce should provide a much better gauge of her current level and title prospects than Craybas could. And if she passes that test, she should see Sharapova, Serena's other tormentor, in the semis. Wouldn't that be another intriguing episode of "As the Williams' World Turns"?

Barry Lorge, former Washington Post staff writer and sports editor/columnist of The San Diego Union, has covered tennis in more than 25 countries on five continents. He co-authored the section on tennis in the Encyclopaedia Britannica.