NEW YORK (AP) — Venus Williams had a backhand volley into the open court for match point.
She stumbled as she stepped into the shot, and the ball bashed into the net. The 33-year-old American stood up slowly and grimaced. After more than three hours, she didn't have one more point left.
Williams lost 6-3, 2-6, 7-6 (5) to 56th-ranked Zheng Jie of China on a wet Wednesday at Flushing Meadows. It is the third year in a row that the two-time champion is out of the U.S. Open after two rounds.
Williams has been slowed the past couple of years by an autoimmune disease that saps energy. Much of this season, she has been hampered by a bad back. And so the questions come about how much longer she'll step onto the court.
"The last few months haven't been easy, coming back from the back injury, one of the more challenging injuries I've dealt with," she said. "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. Tried not to get down.
"So I'll continue playing matches. For me it would be awesome if I could play another match right away, but unfortunately I have to wait weeks to play. That stops the momentum. Maybe this fall I'm going to maybe enter consecutive tournaments, so even if I do have a bad match I can hopefully play sooner so I can just get some rhythm."
Williams acquitted herself well for stretches, erasing deficits over and over again, until she simply ran out of solutions against Zheng, a former top-15 player and twice a major semifinalist.
In what she took as an encouraging sign, Williams was out there for 3 hours, 2 minutes, tying for the fifth-longest women's match since 1970 at the U.S. Open. The third set alone lasted 1½ hours.
"I was like, 'Wow, this is a marathon,'" Williams said.
She wound up with 44 unforced errors in all, half on forehands, in part because Zheng kept scrambling along the baseline to get to balls and block them back, making Williams hit extra shots.
During her on-court interview, Zheng addressed the partisan crowd that was raucously pulling for Williams in Louis Armstrong Stadium, saying: "First, I want to say, 'Sorry, guys.'"
Rain began falling in the early afternoon, jumbling the schedule, and eight women's singles matches were postponed entirely, including Williams' younger sister Serena against Galina Voskoboeva. More than four hours of delays during the day meant 2012 champion Andy Murray did not play his first point of the tournament until 9:55 p.m., making for the third-latest start to a U.S. Open night session.
Men were playing in the first round, women in the second. Murray's 6-2, 6-4, 6-3 victory over 49th-ranked Michael Llodra of France began in Arthur Ashe Stadium only after 2009 champion Juan Martin del Potro wrapped up a contentious 6-3, 6-7 (5), 6-4, 7-6 (7) victory over 74th-ranked Guillermo Garcia-Lopez of Spain that stretched more than four hours.
Murray, who last month became the first British man in 77 years to win Wimbledon, needed only a little more than 1½ hours to get past Llodra, making just five unforced errors while compiling 34 winners.