NEW YORK -- Venus Williams gave every ounce of effort she had in her 33-year-old body that is touched by an immune system disease and pained with back issues. She lunged for volleys and yelled in effort on big serves.
But as the three-set match crept past the two-hour mark, Williams, dripping with sweat, began hanging her head. At the end she was out of the U.S. Open in the second round, a 6-3, 2-6, 7-6 (5) loser to Zheng Jie of China in a match that lasted more than three hours. It is the third consecutive year that Williams has exited the Open in the second round.
This was Williams' 15th appearance at the U.S. Open and her 60th in a Grand Slam event, but the last of her two U.S. Open titles came in 2001.
There had been four hours of rain delays before the pair got into the heat of the match. It had been 15-15 in the first game when the second rain delay came, one that lasted so long that many matches were canceled, including that of Venus's little sister and the No. 1 seed, Serena Williams.
In the first set, Williams held easily in the first game. But in the third she gave up the first break in the third game, losing the first two points of the game, first by spraying a forehand wide then by serving a double fault.
She could never come back from that deficit, and Zheng broke Williams again in the last game of the set at love when another Venus forehand went wildly awry.
The 33-year-old two-time U.S. Open champion broke in the first game of the second set when Zheng hit a forehand wide. Williams held on to that advantage until the set ended.
This was only Williams' fourth match since the French Open; besides dealing with a chronic immune issue she revealed two years ago here, was also having back problems.
Williams took a second service break in the second set for a 4-1 lead. Williams had a chance to serve out the second set, but she had a bad start. Her first point was a double fault, her second a wild forehand error, and Williams was down 0-30. She won the next point when Zheng put a forehand in the net, but Zheng won the next and had two break points.
Williams saved the first when Zheng sent a forehand return into the net and the second by ending a long rally with a classically strong forehand up the line to get to deuce. Zheng got a third break point with a big service return, but Williams responded with an ace and it was back to deuce.
Zheng, yet again, took the advantage when a Williams' forehand was wide. Williams' response this time was a huge backhand winner. Finally Zheng, almost on her knees, hit a forehand into the net and Williams had won the second set. The two had already played 1 hour 32 minutes.
Zheng jumped ahead 2-0 in the final set. After Williams had been forced to save one break point after leading 40-15 on her serve, Zheng forced Williams into sending a forehand wide for the first service break of the second set and that lead.
The 30-year-old Chinese woman ranked 56th in the world, then held serve at 15 for a decisive 3-0 third-set advantage over the 33-year-old Williams, whose ranking has dropped to 60th in the world.
But Williams would not just walk away. She got the match back even at 3-all in the third, and the crowd was on its feet. But then Zheng finally held serve for a 4-3 lead and Zheng got to break point by drawing Williams to the net, where she couldn't quite keep a volley in the court and got the break with a long forehand from Williams that gave Zheng a chance to serve out the match with a 5-3 lead.
To show Williams' fight, she refused to lose easily. Zheng Jie had a chance to serve out the match and Williams hit groundstrokes even harder and got the service break to get back on serve and trail 4-5. It also started raining again as Williams took the balls to serve to even the match.
Play was stopped at all the other courts as Williams began serving. She earned a 40-15 lead before Zheng hit a forehand winner for 40-30 and a service return winner to get to deuce and two points from the win. Instead it was Williams who evened the set at 5-5 with a sweet forehand volley. Finally, the match was suspended because of the rain, with Zheng owning the first set 6-3 and Williams the second, 6-2.
After the players sat through about a five-minute sprinkle, they came back on the court. Williams hit a forehand winner but then sent one long and told herself, "Move forward." Zheng tried a drop shot that was short and was down on her serve 15-30. Williams followed a good return by putting a backhand into the net for 30-30 and the rain stopped. Williams' next point was a long forehand and Zheng held for a 6-5 lead when Williams botched a forehand return.
During the changeover, Williams tried to loosen her back but she missed a backhand and went down 0-15. But Williams didn't lose another point in the game and forced the decisive tie break.
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