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.
This time, buoyed by chants of "Let's go, Venus!" in a mostly empty Arthur Ashe Stadium — perhaps spectators figured in the second set that Kerber was on her way to a swift victory — Williams found the resolve and energy to put aside her 16 double-faults and 60 total unforced errors and help produce as entertaining a contest as the arena has hosted this week.
"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.
Her U.S. Open is over, and Roddick's career will be whenever his last match of this tournament ends.
He made his surprising announcement at a hastily arranged news conference at the site of his biggest triumph — the 2003 championship, the last time an American man won a Grand Slam singles trophy.
"I just feel like it's time," said Roddick, who is seeded 20th. "I don't know that I'm healthy enough or committed enough to go another year. I've always wanted to, in a perfect world, finish at this event. I have a lot of family and friends here. I've thought all year that I would know when I got to this tournament. When I was playing my first round, I knew."
He is scheduled to play 19-year-old Bernard Tomic of Australia in the second round Friday night.
Roddick's impending departure overshadowed some otherwise noteworthy on-court developments Thursday afternoon.
There was the loss by fifth-seeded Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, the 2008 Australian Open runner-up, against a man ranked 52nd.
And there was a spate of victories by American men, two who are Roddick's contemporaries and good pals (32-year-old James Blake and 30-year-old Mardy Fish), and two who have been viewed as possible successors as the best the country has to offer in the sport (19-year-old Jack Sock and 24-year-old Sam Querrey).
"I saw the press conference just before I came out here. I had a feeling, thought it might be, because he's someone who puts heart and soul into every match. It gets tougher as you get older, and I don't think he could keep doing it the same way," said the 115th-ranked Blake, whose 6-1, 6-4, 6-2 upset of No. 24 Marcel Granollers of Spain was stunning for its ease.
No. 23-seeded Fish came back to beat two-time U.S. Open semifinalist Nikolay Davydenko 4-6, 6-7 (4), 6-2, 6-1, 6-2, the tournament-record 10th match in which a man erased a two-set deficit and came all the way back to win.
Men should be playing best-of-three-set matches at Grand Slam tournaments, the way women do.
"Why (do) girls play best of three sets and we should play best of five sets and have the same prize money?" Davydenko said, reviving a familiar debate.
"Why are we playing five-set matches? We need to play best of three in Grand Slams. Everybody will support (that idea, even Roger) Federer. For Federer, it's easy to win in one hour, two sets. No need to run (for) a third set," Davydenko said.
Of course, for Federer, winning three sets before his opponent does never has been much of a problem, and the 17-time major champion moved into the third round with a routine 6-2, 6-3, 6-2 victory over 83rd-ranked Bjorn Phau of Germany on Thursday night.
Naturally, he was asked about Roddick, a guy Federer beat in all four Grand Slam finals they played against each other, including one at the U.S. Open and three at Wimbledon.
"Oh, man. He's a great man," Federer said. "I've had some great battles with him for a long, long time. Obviously, the Wimbledon finals come to mind, the ones we played together. He's a great, great competitor and a great champion, really."
Looking ahead to Friday, Federer also mentioned that he thinks Roddick "truly deserves a great ovation, a great atmosphere, a great crowd. ... I'm definitely going to watch it. It's not one to miss, and I hope it's not his last."
Querrey also echoed the sentiments of plenty of others about Roddick's decision.
"He's been my biggest role model the last 10 years, playing tennis, watching tennis. He's been a really great guy, a great leader to us all. Nice and kind. Really generous to the up-and-comers," Querrey said after beating Ruben Ramirez Hidalgo of Spain 6-3, 6-4, 6-3 to reach the third round. "For me, for ... the 18-year-olds now, he's just been an unbelievable champion, a Hall of Famer."
While few seemed to have an inkling that Roddick would say farewell during these two weeks, 14-time major champion Serena Williams, for one, was not taken aback.
Indeed, after beating Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez of Spain 6-2, 6-4, the younger Williams said she knew this was coming.
"I mean, he told me a while ago — last year — that this would be it," she said. "We were talking about it. I was just thinking, 'Change your mind, Andy. Change your mind.' But I guess he didn't."
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