NEW YORK -- After three hours and two minutes, Zheng Jie won the longest women's match in the first three days of this year's U.S. Open. She won her third set tiebreaker 7-5 to win the match 6-3, 2-6, 7-6.
But when ESPN2's Pam Shriver interviewed the Chinese player moments after the victory, she felt sympathy.
"Sorry, guys," Zheng told Louis Armstrong Stadium.
There was good reason for her sentiment. Zheng had just ousted Venus Williams.
Williams, a former world No. 1 who won the U.S. Open in 2000 and 2001, is now 33. Given her injuries and medical issues, it is possible that this was her last match at the U.S. Open. Even if Williams was not ready to concede that, the topic had to be part of the conversation this night.
"I definitely want to come back for the atmosphere," she said. "I mean, next year's Open is so for away right now."
Williams, who has reached eight semifinals at the U.S. Open, is now ranked No. 60 in the world, which means she is relevant, but just barely. It has been three years since she gotten out of the second round at the U.S. Open. In 2011, Williams withdrew from the second round after being diagnosed with Sjögren's syndrome, an autoimmune disease.
But on Wednesday, Williams felt the some of that old fire -- the kind she had when she reached her first Grand Slam final as a 17-year-old in her first U.S. Open in 1997 -- return. Only to be denied.
"I just kept trying today," Williams said. "That's mostly what I had. Not all my balls were landing. She just played great, hitting lines baselines, winners."
After a rain suspended play, Zheng took the first set by two breaks and Williams looked shaky. Zheng's had five unforced errors to Williams' 15.
"I couldn't pray a ball in, in the first set," Williams said.
The second set saw more of the power Venus and her sister Serena are known for. It was Williams this time taking the set by two breaks on 10 winners and just nine unforced errors.
Then came the third set.
Venus Williams will eventually retire and make the Hall of Fame. When her career highlights clips are shown, Wednesday's match will not be in the package. In a career of so many high moments deep in Grand Slams, Wednesday's loss will not be all that relevant in the grand scheme of things.
For what it's worth, the third set of her match Wednesday was the most exciting set of this year's tournament thus far and may be over the course of the entire fortnight. The clothes and racquets used by the players will not go to Newport. At the very most, the set may be replayed later this week during a rain delay.
But for the fans who were there, the players involved and the officials on the court, the memories will last a lifetime.
Zheng jumped out to a 3-0 lead after the first three games of the set. It would have been easy to count the 33-year-old Williams out. At her age and health status, three-set matches are a death wish.
But Williams fought back.
At 4-2, she broke Zheng to get back on serve. Zheng then broke Williams to serve for the match at 5-3. Williams returned the favor by coming back from Love-30 to break Zheng and get back on serve, 5-4.
Rainclouds returned to Queens. At every stadium but one, officials opted to halt play again.
The one was Louis Armstrong Stadium. A restless crowd that had seen rain delay most of the day groaned at the prospect of another suspension. The officials let play continue.
In game ten of the set, Williams kicked her feet around the baseline. Satisfied with what she felt, Williams stepped up to serve. She blasted the ball to the other side of the net.
Williams held serve, and after a brief pause of no more than three minutes, Zheng and Williams each held serve again.
After 29 games, the match came down to a tiebreaker–best-of-seven, win by two.
Zheng lost the first point on serve. Venus followed by losing both points on her own serve. Nothing was safe anymore. As the players approached, the three-hour mark, fatigue was overshadowing grit.
Zheng held both points on her serve to go up 4-1. Williams would have to come back again. On television, ESPN2's Mike Tirico called it a microcosm of the entire third set.
Williams took an extended towel break and the fans at Armstrong sensed her message. They dialed up one last wave of support, raising the volume of their cheers.
Williams won both points on her serve, the second on a ripped second serve. She then took a point from Zheng's serve.
Zheng held a point. Williams held a point.
5-5. Obviously. The match was not going to end any other way.
Of all the tricks in the book, after a fault, Williams rocked and fired a full swing on her second serve. She sprinted to the net to volley.
Zheng lobbed a soft stroke over the net. Williams had an easy put-away on a backhand volley.
And she hit the net.
"I should have made the shot," she said. "I think I was rushing. I rushed so badly. I just didn't make that shot."
Williams misplayed Zheng's serve at 6-5, hit a backhand wide and lost by the slimmest possible margin in the final set.
"I still feel tight because in the tiebreaker the points were very close," Zheng said an hour after the match had ended.
The script will never fit Hollywood. Venus Williams and Zheng Jie are not rivals in their prime. Like Williams, Zheng is no longer in her 20s (she is 30) and she is a former top-15 player ranked outside the top-50 (56).
The loss is added to a string of defeats Williams has experienced in what is sure to be the twilight of her career.
"I definitely wish that I was playing the third round, but it's not to be for me this year," she said. "I tried. Really, she played well. She just went for every shot. Unfortunately, I didn't play consistently enough."
If not this year, when? Williams is fading in the rankings and the intimidation in her game has been absent for three years. Her Sjögren's syndrome and various injuries have taken a step away from one of the sport's all-time greatest stars.
"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," she said.
Zheng, who moves on to face No. 18 seed Carla Suarez Navarro, certainly believes Williams can still compete on tour after the marathon match. Citing Williams' big serve, Zheng said Venus "can come back quick."
Comebacks. That is what Williams does. Whether it is an injury or a disease, Williams has come back.
At some point though, the clock will strike midnight.
"I've been dealt some cards that aren't as easy to deal with, but I have to play with them," she 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'm a fighter, you know."
The world knows that and respects it. Williams proved Wednesday night, she can still compete to a point. Maybe she cannot play with the top players in the world, but she is still a WTA player. Now, it is time for Williams to decide how much, as a former star for so long, she can do that.
Williams' singles bid is over, but her entire U.S. Open experience is not. She will stick around to play doubles with Serena. The sisters have 11 Grand Slam doubles titles, including two at the U.S. Open.
For Venus Williams the singles player, her future is unknown. If Wednesday was her last match at the U.S. Open, what a way to go out.
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