-- There was a time, not all that long ago, when Serena Williams was the clear-cut favorite at every tournament she entered, no matter the surface, no matter the field, and no matter, frankly, how devoted she was to tennis.
She owned the No. 1 ranking, strung together a so-called Serena Slam, and had everyone's full attention -- her talent, attitude and original outfits demanded it. A long stretch of dominance appeared inevitable.
Heading into Wimbledon, though, women's tennis is in a serious state of parity. Suddenly, Williams must share the spotlight.
Maria Sharapova, not Williams, is the grass-court Grand Slam's defending champion, and the Russian teen's image dominates the main drag of Wimbledon Village from on high, adorning a two-story advertisement.
Sharapova has eclipsed Williams in the rankings and in earnings power. The 18-year-old Russian has referred to herself as "a global brand," one set to pull in more than $20 million this year from endorsements, appearance fees, prize money and other sources.
Lindsay Davenport, not Williams, tops the rankings. It's Davenport, raised fist and wide smile, who graces the cover of the WTA Tour's media guide.
Justine Henin-Hardenne, not Williams, comes to England with the circuit's longest winning streak, 24 matches, and the most recent Grand Slam title, at the French Open.
While the list of contenders for the men's championship at the All England Club doesn't extend much beyond Roger Federer and Andy Roddick, several women could make a run at the title when the fortnight begins Monday. Other women's contenders are U.S. Open champion Svetlana Kuznetsova, Amelie Mauresmo, Kim Clijsters and, if she can regain the desire that's seemed to be lacking lately, Williams's older sister, Venus.
Just don't mention any of that to Serena, who is now ranked fourth but still considers herself the favorite to add to her two Wimbledon trophies.
"It's something I see myself doing -- and getting more than three," she said. "I definitely have the game for it, and I have the talent. I believe in me, and I know a lot of people believe in me, too. That's kind of cool. I feel like I'm destined."
A confluence of unforeseeable events and career-affecting choices have contributed to her slide: the shooting death of her half-sister; left knee surgery and other assorted injuries, including a sprained left ankle that sidelined her for the French Open; time away from the court for all sorts of new experiences, including acting gigs, clothing design, red-carpet appearances, a reality TV show with Venus that wrapped last week; and the decision to stick with her parents as coaches, instead of hiring an outsider.
It's testament to her pure ability that she won the Australian Open, but apart from that tournament she's just 8-4 in 2005.
"Everyone is raising their game and working harder," Serena said. "I don't even know what I'm ranked. If I'm not at the top, I don't even keep up with it."
Here's how far she and, in a more pronounced way, her 14th-seeded sister have fallen. The Wimbledon draw set up a possible all-in-the-family fourth-round match, only two years removed from the end of a stretch in which they met in five out of six Grand Slam finals (Serena won each of those).
"I have no sense of how much they miss being great. I really hope they miss it a lot. It's hard watching them under-perform," TV analyst Mary Carillo said. "If they can turn it around anywhere, they can do it here."
Venus played in four straight Wimbledon finals, winning in 2000 and 2001. Serena won the next two years, then lost to Sharapova in the 2004 final. The latter was part of the current string in which five women divvied up the past five major titles, something that had happened just once in the last quarter-century.
"The level of tennis and competition is high," the second-ranked Sharapova said. "A girl that's top 20 or top 30 right now is a very tough opponent, and that just shows how tough this sport has become."
She's just starting to get a sense of the kind of presumption of perfection that the Williams sisters dealt with. And she, too, is learning how to balance her on- and off-court lives.
"People have to realize, and you have to realize, that you can't win everything," said Sharapova, who last week successfully defended her title at a grass-court tuneup in Birmingham, England. "It's very difficult knowing that people are always expecting you to win and wanting you to win. But I think that people respect that you are just a human."
Federer knows all about outsized expectations, particularly after he won three of the four majors last season. In the past 12 months, he's 91-5 overall (a .948 winning percentage), capturing 14 of 19 tournaments he entered. More impressively, he's won his last 20 finals, and his 29-match winning streak on grass is the second longest in the Open era, trailing only Bjorn Borg's 41.
He insists he feels no pressure as he tries to join Borg and Pete Sampras as the only men in the past 70 years to win three straight Wimbledons.
"I was more concerned last year, defending my first Wimbledon title," the top-ranked Federer said. "Now it's easier for me to deal with the situation."
He has lost only three of 54 matches this year, but two were Slam semifinals: against Marat Safin in Australia, and Rafael Nadal in France.
"Any time he loses, because it's so rare, it makes him seem a little more human," said Roddick, who took a set off Federer in last year's Wimbledon final.
Nadal announced his arrival as a star by winning the French Open, the first man since Mats Wilander in 1982 to take that title in his debut. But even Nadal concedes he's not ready to make a similar showing on grass.
And other potential contenders, such as two-time major champion Safin, 2002 Wimbledon winner Lleyton Hewitt and Great British Hope Tim Henman all have physical or mental hurdles that could prove too tough to overcome.
So Roddick's record-breaking serves and success on grass -- he won a third straight Queen's Club title last week -- make him a natural pick to meet Federer again in two weeks. Even if the American has had, for him, a decent year, not a great one.
"What I have seen missing a little bit from Andy is that attitude. That in-your-face, sticking-it-to-you attitude," U.S. Davis Cup captain Patrick McEnroe said.
"And I think it'll be back at Wimbledon."