THE thunder rumbled in the afternoon, but the real crash came in the early evening gloom.

Serena Williams, 17-time Grand Slam champion, winner of five Wimbledon titles, was laid low by Alize Cornet of France who chose Court One to impose a sensational, lightning strike defeat of 1-6, 6-3, 6-4 on the American.

"I can't believe it," said Cornet, who is French and rated 24th in the world. The result stretched the credulity of most observers, too.

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It is not that Williams is the invincible behemoth of even last season when she won two majors, though she did exit Wimbledon in the fourth round. But she is still the undisputed world No.1 and has won 72 career singles matches here.

The 32-year-old has suffered in the majors this season, though Wimbledon was thought to be the perfect stage for her to be revitalised.

Cornet, who beat Williams in Dubai earlier in the season, played brilliantly, ensuring that for the first time in eight years neither Serena and nor Venus Williams will not be playing in the second week of Wimbledon.

A demoralised Serena lamented: "Everyone in general plays the match of their lives against me. The changes I need to make are mostly within. I need to try to see why I'm making some errors. But if I'm not playing a great, great match, these girls when they play me, they play as if they're on the ATP Tour, and then they play other girls completely differently. It's never easy being in my shoes."

There will, though, be a spring in the step of Maria Sharapova who was scheduled to meet Williams, her perennial nemesis, in the quarter-finals. The 27-year-old Russian breezed through to the second week, beating Alison Riske of the USA 6-3, 6-0 under the gaze of David Beckham in the royal box.

Sharapova, who won Wimbledon 10 years ago, is in a relationship with Grigor Dimitrov, the Bulgarian player who has also reached the second week of the championships. She was asked whether being happy in her personal life had an impact on court. "It's always nice to have a great balance," she said. "What you do on the court and off the court, they're very different.

"But it's great to have the right balance because ultimately a career only lasts for so many years, especially for a woman. It's definitely nice to feel like you're mentally happy out there when you're on the court."

Sharapova's emotional stability will be helped by not playing Serena, but she will face a stern test in Angelique Kerber of Germany. The highly impressive youngsters Eugenie Bouchard of Canada and Simona Halep, who she beat in the French Open final, may await her down the line.

Bouchard, at 20, and Halep, 22, provided the strongest evidence in defeating Andrea Petkovic and Belinda Bencic respectively that a new generation are flexing their muscles at Wimbledon 2014.