At a U.S. Open that will be remembered for goodbyes by Andy Roddick and Kim Clijsters, another former No. 1 and Grand Slam champion, Venus Williams, left with a spirited second-round loss that felt nothing like a farewell.
Hours after Roddick chose the occasion of his 30th birthday to let the tennis world in on a little secret he'd been keeping - he'll retire after his run at Flushing Meadows ends - Williams served poorly and stumbled badly for a set and a half before recovering to make things quite competitive.
Williams came within two points of winning, but dropped five of the last six games and ended up exiting early at a tournament she's won twice, beaten 6-2, 5-7, 7-5 by sixth-seeded Angelique Kerber of Germany in a nearly 3-hour match that ended at 12:19 a.m. as Thursday turned to Friday.
Asked afterward if she's ready to join Roddick in retirement, Williams replied: "No, because if I could have made two more shots, I probably could have won that match. I think there's a big difference for me because I'm beating myself. I'm not getting destroyed out there. ... If I was out there and people were killing me, maybe it's time to hang it up."
A year ago at the U.S. Open, Williams didn't get the chance to play at all in the second round, withdrawing hours before the match and announcing she had Sjogren's syndrome, an autoimmune disease that can cause fatigue.
"I know this is not proper tennis etiquette, but this is the first time I've ever played here that the crowd has been behind me like that. Today I felt American, you know, for the first time at the U.S. Open," Williams said. "So I've waited my whole career to have this moment and here it is."
At changeovers in the third set, trying to concentrate on her coach's game plan, Kerber draped a white towel over her head, looking a bit like a little kid dressing as a ghost for Halloween. She would lift the towel's edge every so often so she could tuck a water bottle underneath and take a sip.
"Venus is such a great player. ... Everybody was against me," Kerber said, referring to the crowd, "but it doesn't matter."
It all came a day after four-time major champion Clijsters, who is 29, played the final singles match of her career, and while the 32-year-old Williams never has uttered a word indicating she's thinking about leaving the sport, she is no longer the player she once was.
"Obviously, being on the losing end of a match like this isn't a lot of fun," Williams said. "Today all I had was fight, because I didn't play well."
In addition to her 2000 and 2001 trophies from the U.S. Open, and five titles from Wimbledon, Williams was the runner-up at major tournaments seven times. In 16 years of Grand Slam action, since her debut in 1997, Williams had never gone through an entire season without making at least one fourth-round appearance at a major.
Until 2012, when she never even made the third round once. She missed the Australian Open while still working her way back onto the tour, then lost in the second round at the French Open and the first round at Wimbledon.
For so long the owner of one of the most feared serves on the women's tour - surpassed only, perhaps, by her younger sister Serena's - Williams took quite a while to get going against Kerber, who was a semifinalist in New York last year. Williams was broken each of the first five times she served and nine times overall.
"It's been a long time; I usually don't have that many breaks," Williams said.
She only hit one ace, more than 1 1/2 hours into the match, in her 10th service game of the evening.
Kerber reeled off six consecutive games in one stretch from the first set to the second, while Williams' mother, Oracene Price, rested her chin on her right hand in the stands. Williams made things interesting, though.
"I was nervous at the end of the second set. I mean, I was a little bit nervous and playing also not so aggressive. I was too defensive," Kerber said.
Then, after Williams led 4-2 in the third set, and was two points away from victory while leading 5-4 as Kerber served, it all came apart again down the stretch for the American.
Usually stoic during matches, whether winning or losing, Williams was as animated as she gets, raising a clenched fist or yelling "Come on!" after those rare instances when she did control the action - and dropping her head or rolling her eyes or even swiping her racket on the court after missed shots.
It was the left-handed Kerber's tour-leading 55th match win of the year, and she even showed off a little ingenuity, twice shifting the racket to her right hand to extend exchanges. She even won one, somehow connecting with enough oomph righty to get the ball over to the other side. Williams, perhaps stunned the point wasn't over, pushed a swinging backhand volley into the net while staggering forward.
That kind of night for Williams, who even had issues with an earring that came out of her right lobe and the wrapping on her racket handle, which she replaced during a changeover.
Serena, however, still has the fire, no doubt, though it was partially frustrated Thursday by some sloppy play in what nonetheless was a straight-set win.
The 14-time Grand Slam champion beat old nemesis Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez 6-2, 6-4. Down a break early in the second set, Williams came back to notch a comfortable victory.
Williams turns 31 on Sept. 26, though she certainly isn't fielding the sort of retirement questions Roddick frequently faced after her titles at Wimbledon and the Olympics this summer.
"It makes me want to stay more," Williams said. "Losing Kim was so hard. I saw her yesterday. I just hugged her. My eyes got watery. ... I didn't expect that reaction."
On Thursday, the fourth-seeded Williams overcame six double-faults and 24 unforced errors - she had 32 winners to five for Martinez Sanchez.
"I wasn't really happy with the way I was playing," Williams said. "I just wasn't happy out there today in general. I woke up on the wrong side of the bed."
She and Martinez Sanchez have a bit of a history. In the 2009 French Open third round, Williams hit a ball she was sure went off Martinez Sanchez's arm, then said the Spaniard cheated by not acknowledging it.
Martinez Sanchez has been ranked as high as 19th but is at No. 108 after struggling with a right thigh injury this year.
Williams next faces 42nd-ranked Russian Ekaterina Makarova, who beat her in the round of 16 at the Australian Open this year.
Second-seeded Agnieszka Radwanska was down a set and a break to 39th-ranked Carla Suarez Navarro. Then she won 11 straight games for a 4-6, 6-3, 6-0 victory.
A week before the start of the Open, Ana Ivanovic couldn't walk without pain in her right foot.
"That's when I started to panic a little bit," she said.
Two matches into the tournament, the 2008 French Open champion is feeling healthy -- and relaxed. The 12th-seeded Ivanovic and another Serbian former top-ranked player, Jelena Jankovic, have quietly reached the third round at Flushing Meadows. Each has dropped just nine games through a pair straight-set wins.
Ivanovic beat 51st-ranked Sofia Arvidsson of Sweden 6-2, 6-2 on Thursday. Jankovic, seeded 30th, defeated 115th-ranked Lara Arruabarrena-Vecino of Spain 6-4, 6-2.
Asked if the torn tendon is fully healed, Ivanovic laughed and said, "I still have a handful of pills every morning."
But the foot hasn't been hurting since the tournament started, and Ivanovic's draw is looking fairly painless with Caroline Wozniacki and Francesca Schiavone eliminated in her quarter.
Ivanovic has been trying to regain her health and her confidence for the last four years. She has yet to make it back to even a quarterfinal of a Grand Slam event.
"I'm really motivated. I want to get back to the top and back in contention to win Grand Slams again," Ivanovic said. "It's been a long process of getting my mind there and my body and game and everything together. Still, it's going to be a lot of hard work and long process, but I'm starting to enjoy it as well.
"I know if it doesn't happen this week, it's coming."
In other women's second-round action Thursday, 13th-seeded Dominika Cibulkova and No. 14 Maria Kirilenko advanced in straight sets.
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