LONDON -- Her champion's heart still beat with life and hope. Venus Williams had played through seemingly endless deuces. Swatted away break points. A burst of energy got her to deuce one more time, and she capitalized by walloping a desperate inside-out forehand winner.
Then Williams' opponent did her part. Angelique Kerber, up a set, missed a service return and saw her second-set lead trimmed to 3-2. Williams still had a chance. She might still find a way to win this Wimbledon semifinal.
Williams trudged to her chair, breathing through parted lips. She sat, a blank look on her face. She popped the red plastic cap on her water bottle, took a sip. She closed her eyes, as if something she didn't particularly care to read were written in the air in front of her. The message might have been: "You're 36 years old. You've had a great run. But all good things come to an end."
Trailing 3-2. So close, but so far. It had cost so much effort. Her legs had stood her in good stead through five matches, providing sufficient spring to launch wicked serves, explosive first steps, on-a-dime changes of direction and minor midpoint stance adjustments. Now they were flagging as she faced Kerber, an extremely clever ball striker.
The 28-year-old German knew exactly what she wanted to do. She was aware of Williams' age. She knew Williams suffers from an autoimmune condition that causes fatigue and joint pain. She knew her opponent's history at Wimbledon. Kerber said she was too busy taking care of things on her own side of the net to notice if Williams was a little slow or tired.
"I know that she played long matches, in the first week especially," Kerber said after she eliminated Williams 6-4, 6-4 on Thursday in an hour and 12 minutes. "I was trying to moving her. That was the plan. That is always the plan when you play against Venus, because when she have the ball on the racket, yeah, she just hits the ball from left to right, and you just run."
Kerber, the No. 4 seed, has had trouble handling the pressure of her status as a Grand Slam champion after her breakthrough win at the Australian Open in January. The versatile left-hander had no trouble curbing the stress Thursday.
Ever stoic, 8-seed Williams refused to blame fatigue -- or any factor but Kerber's proficiency -- for the loss: "She played so well. Just credit to her for playing well. Second [Grand Slam] final of the year. It shows she's doing something right."
It was clear from the outset of the match that almost two full weeks of work, often under circumstances that might have warranted extra pay for the wet, hazardous conditions, had finally taken a toll on Williams. The first week, overflowing with stops and starts, was as emotionally wearing as it was sloppy and fitful. Williams passed grueling three-set tests in the second and third rounds (her win in the latter took two hours and 24 minutes). She celebrated with a pair of knockout wins in the next two rounds to reach the semis.
Williams and Kerber both struggled to serve early in Thursday's match. Kerber, whose second serve is vulnerable, admitted she was feeling the jitters. Williams took advantage. Kerber is an excellent returner. Williams, whose serve is usually explosive, lacked spring in her legs. Kerber took advantage.
"I don't know what was the problem," Kerber said. "I think we both were returning very well at the beginning of the first set. I mean, I was a little bit nervous when I go out there because I was trying to playing my best tennis."
Williams quickly went two breaks down in the first set. She never led in the match. Her fatigue is written all over the stat sheet:
Only 15 percent of her serves went unreturned -- her lowest number in her six Wimbledon matches this year.
She won by far her lowest percentage of first-serve points (57 percent; next lowest was 65 percent).
She clocked her second-lowest average first serve speed.
She didn't hit a single service-return winner.
She produced her worst performance of the tournament in rallies lasting longer than nine shots. Williams won just two of nine such points; in her opening match, she won 11 of 19.
Still, Williams dug in and earned back one of those first-set breaks. She pressed hard when Kerber served for the set at 5-4 but just didn't have enough power to break through. Discouraged, Williams gave up an early second-set break. She staved off a rout with that hold in the 3-1 game, but the American was unable to keep Kerber from rolling to the win.
"I played against a lot of great opponents. I had a lot of tough matches. It's not easy out there,' Williams reminded reporters afterward. Reflecting on the threat she posed for so long in this tournament at her age, she added, "Yeah, in life there is no such thing as impossible. It's always possible. That's what you feel as an athlete. Pretty much our job is to make the impossible happen every day. It's like magic, you know. I like that."