NEW YORK -- Venus Williams fought as hard as she could, showing the mettle that has earned her seven Grand Slam titles in her 18-year career. But she couldn't find the consistency when she needed it, losing to China's Zheng Jie 6-3, 2-6, 7-6 (5) in the second round of the U.S. Open on Wednesday.
Zheng, a two-time Slam semifinalist, came into the U.S. Open having not won a match since the French Open. She summoned her best against Williams, though, defending well and going for her forehand whenever she could. Most remarkable was how well she handled Williams' serve, standing near or on top of the baseline to block back the 114 mph bombs coming her way. And while Zheng neutralized Williams' biggest weapon, the American just couldn't take advantage of her opponent's biggest weakness: her serve.
As Zheng sent in first serves that averaged 86 mph, Williams' big cuts found the net. Williams' consistency off the ground was spotty but she battled back from a set down to level the match and then rallied again in the final set, coming back from 1-4 down to force a tiebreaker. Once again, Williams recovered from 1-4 in the tiebreaker to pull even at 5-5, only to send a high backhand volley that seemed headed for the open court straight down into the net.
"I should have made the shot," Williams said. "I think I was just rushing. I rushed so badly. I just didn't make the shot."
That miss was the difference in the tiebreaker. Zheng, 30, served out the next point to match her career-best result at the U.S. Open.
"I definitely wish that I was playing the third round, but it's not to be for me this year," Williams said.
The topsy-turvy match, which was interrupted by rain twice, lasted 3 hours and 2 minutes, tied for the fifth longest women's match in U.S. Open recorded history.
"I tried," Williams said. "Really, she played well. She just went for every shot. Unfortunately, I didn't play consistently enough.
"I just dug myself into so many holes the whole match. I just fought as hard as I could to get out of them, but sometimes it wasn't enough."
Williams, ranked No. 60, hasn't won back-to-back matches at a tournament since the Family Circle Cup in Charleston, S.C. in April. Since being diagnosed with Sjogren's syndrome, an autoimmune disease, at the end of 2011, Williams has failed to get past the third round at a major. A back injury forced her to withdraw from Wimbledon this summer. While the 33-year-old played better this week, in her 15th U.S. Open, than she has in months, she couldn't avoid questions about retirement.
"I've been dealt some cards that aren't as easy to deal with, but I have to play with them," Williams said. "The last few months haven't been easy, coming back from the back injury, one of the more challenging injuries I've dealt with. I feel like it's definitely affected my game, but I'm working on it. I'm a fighter. Just like today, I didn't play my best, but I tried as hard as I could."
Williams added: "If I didn't think I had anything in the tank, I wouldn't be here. So I feel like I do, and that's why I'm here."
Pressed again with another retirement question, this time about when players know it's time to walk away from the game, Williams said: "I don't know. Everybody has their own idea when they're ready. That's all I can say about that."
As to whether this might be her last U.S. Open (she's still in doubles here with Serena), Venus kept it vague. The mind is willing; the biggest question is the body.