NEW YORK—Venus Williams has had her share of heartbreaking defeats in her 15 U.S. Opens, but her three-hour, 6-3, 2-6, 7-6 (5) loss to Zheng Jie has to rank near the top of that list of misery. Three times, the 33-year-old American made major fight backs on Wednesday. After dropping the first set, she changed her tactics to win the second; after going down 1-4 and 3-5 in the final set, she pulled out some of her vintage refuse-to-lose tennis to force a tiebreaker; finally, after going down 1-4 in the breaker, she evened the score at 5-5.
All of that battling went for naught, though, as Venus, with a chance to get to match point, plunked an easy backhand volley into the net. A minute later, this see-saw and often exciting second-rounder ended in anti-climax, when Venus flipped a backhand return wide to hand Zheng her first win over either Williams sister. The crowd that had waited through a three-hour rain delay for the match, and had stood and cheered the two-time champion through her multiple comebacks, was left quietly crestfallen. Who knows how many times the two-time Open champion will be back in New York?
It’s surprising, in a way, that Zheng had never beaten Venus or Serena before today. The 5'5" former Australian Open semifinalist lives for pace, and that’s what the Williamses give her. Zheng gobbled it up so well in the first set that Venus had no choice but to change tactics in the second. Rather than try to belt the ball past the speedy Zheng, she looped it high and forced her to hit above her shoulder. It worked. Zheng was immediately thrown out of her rhythm.
The third set took 90 minutes and offered a little of everything; the quality of play from each woman peaked and dipped every few games. Zheng smacked Venus’s first serves back and darted to the net for deftly angled volleys; she also lost control of her forehand and tightened up badly with a chance to put the match away. For her part, Venus was very good at the net as well, and she played with ice in her veins when she was behind. But her forehand misfired at the wrong moments, too—Venus finished with 44 unforced errors—and she went for too much early in the deciding tiebreaker, putting herself in a hole. It was the third hole that Venus had dug on the day, and it proved to be one too many.
After three hours and two minutes—this was the fifth longest women’s match at the Open since 1970—Zheng apologized for spoiling the crowd’s party, and began to look forward to her third-rounder against Carla Suarez Navarro. Venus walked off with a smile and a wave, to a standing ovation. She must feel like heartbreak in New York is her destiny by now.
IBM Stat of the Match: Venus was 17 of 27 at the net, but it was her final miss there, at 5-5 in the third-set tiebreaker, that doomed her.
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