By Greg Garber
July 4, 2007, 5:16 PM ET
WIMBLEDON, England -- Scuffling to get back to the middle of the court, Venus Williams was abruptly forced to change direction. She fell awkwardly, on her stomach, but did not concede the point.
With no legs beneath her, Williams nevertheless made a backhand lunge at the ball and, grimacing, actually got a racket on it.
Place an Alla Kudryavtseva, a Hana Sromova or an Akiko Morigami in front of Venus Williams and you won't get much of a reaction. Williams was uninspired, sometimes laconic, in her first three matches here at the All England Club.
But roll out Maria Sharapova and, well, Williams is suddenly engaged. Her teeth bared, eyes blazing with intensity, Williams slammed the No. 2 seed off Centre Court on Wednesday 6-1, 6-3 in a match interrupted by rain for nearly two hours.
Her sister Serena, her left calf, left wrist and both ankles heavily taped, did not play with her usual verve. She lost in the quarterfinals to No. 1 seed Justine Henin 6-4, 3-6, 6-3. Williams, who seemed sluggish in her movements, did well to force the match to three sets.
Serena said the decision to play was last-minute, and that when the doctor scheduled to examine her was late, she walked out to the court against the wishes of doctors and her father. She said she sprained her left thumb when she fell in the third set of Tuesday's match against Daniela Hantuchova and could manage only a weak, one-handed backhand.
She described her health as "40 or 50 percent, max."
"I hate to not try," Serena said. "I feel like if I could have at least tried, I would be able to fight through it or maybe adrenaline would kick in. I would feel awful just not even trying.
"If I'd have been healthy, 100 percent, I think I would have won."
She took a shot at Michael Stich, the former Wimbledon champion who criticized her for being overly dramatic when she pulled a calf muscle against Hantuchova.
"My career is actually more stellar than Michael Stich's, so he can say whatever he pleases," Serena snapped. "I have never experienced that much pain. I've never been overdramatic in my whole career."
For the record, Williams has won eight Grand Slam titles, while Stich's lone Grand Slam singles victory came at Wimbledon in 1991.
How does Venus consistently raise her game for meaningful matches?
"That's clearly a question towards her," Sharapova said. "She hasn't been playing her best tennis here. But against me, I mean, both [Williams] play really good tennis."
"I mean, in my whole life I've been a big-match player," Venus said. "This is obviously a fourth-round match. It wasn't the ideal draw for her."
Venus is scheduled to play No. 5 Svetlana Kuznetsova Thursday in a quarterfinal match.
How dominant was Venus Williams? She placed unrelenting pressure on Sharapova's fragile serve, collecting 19 break points. Sharapova couldn't force one.
"I couldn't really give myself any chances on the return," Sharapova said. "I think that put a little extra pressure on my serve."
It was a rare fourth-round matchup of former Wimbledon champions; between them they have won four of the six Wimbledon titles contested in the new millennium.
The two players previously had met four times, with Sharapova winning three. The exception: the only match on grass, the 2005 semifinals here. After prevailing in a tense tiebreaker, Williams blew out Sharapova 6-1 in the final set.
Wednesday's first set, played two years later, was the matching bookend. Last week, Sharapova said she wasn't prepared at the time to play with such sustained intensity. This match revealed that not much has changed. Williams, seven years Sharapova's senior, schooled her again.
Much has been made of Sharapova's tender right shoulder, but it didn't appear to be a factor. Rather, it was her inability to get any kind of serve in the box that ruined her. Sharapova double-faulted four times in the fourth game of the match and was broken again the sixth game when she netted a forehand.
Grinding on her serve (again) with the second set tied at 1-all, Sharapova had a game point on her racket when the rain came. One hour and 55 minutes later, they continued the longest game of the match. It ended -- 13 deuces and 22 minutes later -- when Williams missed an awkward overhead. And though Sharapova escaped, when Williams won the next game at love it underlined how much harder Sharapova had to work on her service games.
Sharapova, spiraling downward, was broken at love in the seventh game and again in the ninth. She won only 13 of 33 points (39 percent) when she was forced to hit a second serve. By contrast, Williams had only 11 second serves.
In the end, movement was the difference. Williams, still startlingly athletic, tracked down most of Sharapova's side-to-side groundstrokes and moved forward on any ball that was even remotely short. Sharapova, even when the opportunity presented itself, retreated to the baseline.
Movement was the difference in the Williams-Henin match as well. Serena showed a lot of heart in forcing the match to three sets. Down 1-5, she was two points from getting the match back on serve, but a good Henin serve (prompting a forehand return in the net) and loose, long backhand gave the Belgian the match. It was better than her straight-sets loss to Henin in the French Open quarterfinals, but that is little comfort.
Before the tournament, British odds-makers made Serena Williams the women's favorite. Richard Williams, however, insisted that Venus just might win the tournament.
He is starting to look like a prophet.
Serena was asked whether she had seen the eventual Wimbledon champion on the other side of the court, meaning Henin.
"No," she said. "I saw the eventual champion [Venus] playing earlier in the fourth round."
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
Simply Stunning, Simply Serena
57 Consecutive Weeks as World #1
Olympic Gold Medalist ('00 Doubles w/ Venus)