LONDON -- While the prevailing mood at the All England Club was somber Wednesday afternoon in the wake of defending Wimbledon champion Andy Murray's elimination, women's tennis fans were still buzzing about the mysterious exit a day earlier of Serena Williams, which stunned even former players, including the greatest champion here of all time.
The official cause of Williams' withdrawal from her second-round doubles match with partner and sister Venus on Tuesday was termed a "viral illness," but that has been a source of rampant speculation.
"I find it distressing," said Martina Navratilova, a nine-time Wimbledon singles champion (with 20 titles here, including doubles and mixed doubles) and Tennis Channel analyst. "I think virus, whatever they're saying it was, I don't think that was it. I think it's clear that's not the case. I don't know what it is, but I hope Serena will be OK. And most of all, I don't know how she ended up walking onto the court."
Attempts to reach Williams' agent, Jill Smoller, were unsuccessful.
The Williams sisters defaulted their match against Kristina Barrois and Stefanie Voegele after four double faults by Serena, who, unsteady on her feet, was unable to bounce, toss or serve the ball. After a few words with the umpire, who came off his chair to talk, she played one more point and then retired. She took her sister's hand, sat down and was examined by medical personnel.
The start of the match had also been delayed by 14 minutes while a tournament doctor checked on her. Barrois said she was able to tell immediately that something was wrong.
"Barrois said after the first hit in warm-up, [Williams] wasn't able to hit the ball over the net," ESPN analyst and former player Pam Shriver said of an interview Wednesday morning. "I asked her what they were being told, and she said they were just told Serena was being evaluated."
Barrois and Voegele turned down interview requests by American reporters after their third-round loss Wednesday because they did not want to answer questions about Williams.
On Wednesday, the WTA reported that the medical staff from Wimbledon and the WTA checked on Serena in the morning at the home where she is staying and that "she is resting there and feeling slightly better."
Serena posted a photo on her Instagram:
From analysts to fans to viewers, however, one question was how she took the court at all in the condition she was in.
"It's the most inexplicable thing of all that she was clearly in no state to play a match and that with all the people around her, that they didn't stop her from getting on the court," Navratilova said.
Williams' coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, told reporters he had not seen Serena in two days. Williams, a five-time singles champion here and the tournament's top seed, was upset Saturday in the third round of singles by No. 25 Alize Cornet.
"I've never seen anything like it and hopefully never will again," Navratilova said. "Everybody was put in such a difficult position, including the WTA. It's not right. It defies logic on so many fronts. The coach said he hadn't seen her for two days. He didn't know anything. How can you be a coach and not know anything? That's wrong. And Venus was just kind of there. You don't know what's going on, but virus was not it, that much is clear."
Observers, including friends and family, were reported as saying that Williams was distressed after the singles loss. Navratilova, who was No. 1 in the world for a total of 332 weeks in singles and a record 237 weeks in doubles, agreed it was not uncommon for a top player to want to be alone after a big loss.
"[But] why would it take two days?" she said. "Either you go home or default. I would expect a default before you play. But once you step onto the court, you're a professional tennis player, you've got to be ready to play. No matter what is ailing you or no matter if you did anything to get you in that state or you're sick or whatever, you don't step on the court. You don't step on the court no matter what."
Mary Joe Fernandez, a former player and ESPN analyst who called Williams' singles loss, described a player who came into the tournament favored to win, despite early-round losses in the previous Grand Slams this year (in the fourth round at the Australian Open and second round at the French).
"I thought she looked confused, just didn't have any confidence," Fernandez said of that singles loss. "She was trying to hit, but the balls weren't going through the court. Cornet on a grass court should never have time to play as many drop shots as she did. I just felt the tension was absorbing her and she wasn't able to play freely."
After the French Open loss, Williams vowed to work harder than ever to "make sure I never lose again." But she returned to Florida and Instagrammed photos of herself with Caroline Wozniacki and Olympic champion Usain Bolt at Miami Heat playoff games.
Williams, who will be 33 in September, has won 17 Grand Slam singles titles (one short of tying Navratilova and Chris Evert for fourth on the all-time list) and 13 in doubles (all with Venus). She is coming off arguably the best year of her career, finishing 2013 with 11 titles, two Grand Slams, 78 overall wins and a decisive finish atop the WTA rankings.
After the Australian Open loss to Ana Ivanovic, Williams said she was barely able to move because of back problems. This spring, Williams complained of fatigue and said she needed to "regroup" after losing in the first round of the Family Circle Cup in March. She withdrew from the quarterfinals the following week in Madrid with a leg injury but won the Italian Open over Sara Errani just before the French, where she suffered her worst Grand Slam loss ever (in fewest games won, with four).
"After the last two seasons, she knows what she's capable of," Fernandez said. "This [Centre] Court, during the Olympics, she lost [17 games in six matches] throughout the whole tournament. Beating [Victoria] Azarenka, beating [Maria] Sharapova and dropping [just four combined] games. I think because she knows she's that good, when she can't quite get there, when she's struggling, it gets to her."
That does not mean, however, that we're seeing the demise of Williams' career, Fernandez said.
"She's had such a long career," she said. "We've seen her do it so many times, there's no reason she can't do it again. She's not coming back from surgery, she's not coming back from that illness scare [a life-threatening pulmonary embolism in 2011]. She's No. 1 in the world, let's not forget that. She's still best in the world.
"I just think she takes her losses really hard, and she puts more pressure on herself than anybody, and she expects to win. And when she doesn't, it's really hard."
Shriver said it was simply too difficult to analyze Williams' future after Tuesday's events.
"It's hard to talk about her at this point based on what we saw yesterday because it was such a strange sight to see," Shriver said. "The level of concern over her health and well-being, you may never know, there may just be no information.
"You can't even begin to speculate after what we saw yesterday, when we she might begin to train again. It's just hard to know."
Navratilova agreed that talking about where Williams goes from here is premature.
"Totally," she said. "But clearly she has some issues that need to be resolved."