Fueled by the energy of the crowd in Louis Armstrong Stadium, Venus Williams was on the brink of victory Wednesday evening.
Williams was two points from a thrilling win over Zheng Jie — nicknamed the “Great Wall of China” for her ability to return every ball hit her way — that would’ve kept her storybook run at this year’s U.S. Open alive for at least another round.
But at 5-all in the third-set tiebreak, Williams smacked an easy backhand volley into the net, giving her opponent a match point. One point later, Williams was out of the Open in the second round when she sailed a backhand return wide, losing 6-3, 2-6, 7-6 (5), in a match that was delayed some four hours by rain.
“I should have made the shot,” Williams said of the missed volley. “I think I was just rushing. I rushed so badly. I just didn’t make the shot.”
At 33 and battling back problems and Sjögren’s syndrome (which affects her energy level and causes fatigue), it seems fair to wonder whether Williams — a seven-time major champion — has played her last U.S. Open.
She burst on the scene by reaching the final here in 1997, back when she and her sister wore beads in their hair, and captivated the tennis world in the first year at the new Arthur Ashe Stadium. The older Williams sister would go on to win back-to-back titles in 2000 and 2001.
Those titles were more than a decade ago, but Venus — like Roger Federer a day before — insists retirement is the furthest thing from her mind.
“I think there’s a lot of positives for me out of this tournament,” she said. “I continue to serve better and recover my back injury with each tournament.
“So I know there’s a lot more things I can do better. I’ll just continue to step up and give myself chances. A lot of times I’m putting myself in a good position but not always capitalizing. So I’ll get there. I just have to keep working at it.”
The match was played on the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, and seemed an appropriate time to recognize her contributions to the sport, especially with a wave of young black women like Sloane Stephens, Madison Keys and 17-year-old Haitian sensation Victoria Duval all on the way up.
“I’m so happy to see them doing well,” Venus said. “They all seem really talented. I’m looking forward to them continuing to develop their games and hopefully be able to win big matches, big tournaments and continue to influence the next generation as well. So that would definitely be full circle.”
Williams had hoped to play another match here, en route to a possible quarterfinal matchup with sister Serena, still the heavy favorite to win the women’s draw.
Instead, she must focus on playing doubles with her little sister, and to hitting the indoor circuit in Asia this fall.
She said she plans to return to the Open again next year, once again captivating the crowd.
“I definitely have a blessed life to live my dreams, so that’s definitely how I try to look at it every single day, even if there’s challenges,” she said. “That’s all I can do.”
Follow Adam Zagoria on Twitter @AdamZagoria for coverage throughout the U.S. Open.