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The Venus-Serena doubles team came to end quicker than expected

The end of an era arrived in a flurry of sluggish serves, mixed signals and netted volleys. Olympic doubles had been Venus and Serena Williams’ personal property while winning three gold medals over the past 16 years. But age, sickness and a persistent pair of Czechoslovakians combined in a cruel and stunning end to the sisters’ Olympic doubles career.

In hindsight, it shouldn’t have been so shocking to see Venus and Serena lose 6-3, 6-4 to Lucie Safarova and Barbora Strycova on Sunday. Venus is 36 years old. These were her fifth Olympics. In 2011, she disclosed she has Sjongren’s syndrome, which causes fatigue and joint pain. One day before the doubles loss, a virus cost Venus her first-round singles match, leaving her with cramping, dehydration and stomach pain.

But these were the Williams women, winners of 14 Grand Slam doubles titles. Serena is still Serena, No. 1 in the world. They had never lost an Olympic doubles match. The Czechs, relatively new partners, had never won a match together. You kept waiting for the sisters to dig in, for Venus to return and Serena to roar and for their resolve to turn the tide like so many times before.

“This has been [Venus’] goal for the last four years — to come back to the Olympics,” U.S. women’s tennis coach Mary Jo Fernandez said before the match. “She wants to win a medal so badly in anything.”

Instead of a fourth doubles gold medal to go with one singles gold for each sister, we are left with the Olympic memory of the Czechs feasting on Venus’ serve. Of Serena at the net yelling “cross,” but Venus failing to cover. Of Venus moving stiffly between points, and calling often for a towel. Of Strycova volleying the ball through Venus’ legs at the net — twice.

As Strycova and Safarova pulled away, the Rio crowd got behind them, chanting for the Czechs and even booing down an attempted chant of “U-S-A.”

Venus only deigned to speak to the media for 15 seconds after the match. “Today was not our best day as a team,” she said, looking into the distance. “We like to have a chance to play into the tournament, we just played a tough team. So we wish them the best of luck in the rest of the event, and we’ll get ready for the US Open in doubles.”

Serena showed just the briefest glimpse of what it feels like to know that her run of sisterly dominance is ending.

“It’s devastating,” Serena said. Then she changed course, unconvincingly. “But we’re really, also, I wouldn’t say it’s devastating. We had a chance to compete for our country, we did the best that we can, and we had a blast out there. I wouldn’t actually say it was devastating, it was a lot of fun, and we’ll always remember these moments, these matches. At the end of the day, that’s what matters most.”

“We honestly didn’t play our best whatsoever tonight,” Serena said. “We played terrible, and it showed in the results.”

The Venus and Serena team is not finished. They won Wimbledon doubles this year, and will play the U.S. Open. Serena is still competing in singles in Rio. But for the first time since 2004, when Serena withdrew from the Games with a knee injury, another pair of women will wear the gold.

This story is featured on ESPN.com

Jesse Washington is a journalist and documentary filmmaker. He still gets buckets.