NEW YORK After her latest early Grand Slam exit, Venus Williams was asked what the future holds for her at the U.S. Open.
In one breath, Williams brushed aside the unspoken reference to retirement, saying, "I definitely want to come back for the atmosphere."
And in the next, she added, "I mean, next year's Open is so far away right now."
At 33, slowed the past few years by an autoimmune disease that saps energy, and hampered much of this season by a bad back, Williams knows by now that such queries are going to arrive, particularly after results such as her 6-3, 2-6, 7-6 (5) loss to 56th-ranked Zheng Jie of China on a wet Wednesday at Flushing Meadows. It is the third year in a row that the two-time champion is out of the U.S. Open after two rounds.
"If I didn't think I had anything in the tank, I wouldn't be here," said Williams, who was ranked No. 1 in 2002 and is currently 60th. "I feel like I do, and that's why I'm here."
Williams acquitted herself well for stretches, repeatedly erasing deficits, until she simply ran out of solutions against Zheng, a former top-15 player and twice a major semifinalist.
"I just kept trying to fight today," Williams said.
In what she took as an encouraging sign, Williams was out there for 3 hours, 2 minutes, tying for the fifth-longest women's match since 1970 at the U.S. Open. The third set lasted 11/2 hours.
"I was like, 'Wow, this is a marathon,' " Williams said.
Near the finish line, she faltered. On the final two points, Williams missed a volley, then a return. She wound up with 44 unforced errors, half on forehands, partly because Zheng kept scrambling along the baseline to get to balls and block them back, making Williams hit extra shots.
The last time Williams advanced beyond the third round at a major tournament was a fourth-round appearance at Wimbledon in 2011. Two of her previous four trips to majors ended in the first round, including at the French Open in May. Because of her back, she sat out Wimbledon this year for the first time.
But she is not ready to say goodbye.
"I've had a tough set of circumstances to work through, too, especially this year, last year, and the year before," she said. "I feel like it's definitely affected my game, but I'm working on it. I'm a fighter."
Rain began falling in the early afternoon, jumbling the schedule, and eight women's singles matches were postponed, including Williams' sister Serena against Galina Voskoboeva.
More than four hours of delays meant 2012 champion Andy Murray did not play his first point of the tournament until 9:55 p.m. EDT.
Murray's 6-2, 6-4, 6-3 win over 49th-ranked Michael Llodra of France began at Arthur Ashe Stadium after 2009 champion Juan Martin del Potro's contentious 6-3, 6-7 (5), 6-4, 7-6 (7) victory over 74th-ranked Guillermo Garcia-Lopez of Spain, a match that stretched more than four hours.
Murray needed only a little more than 1 1/2 hours to get past Llodra, making only five unforced errors while compiling 34 winners.
Del Potro was irked by his opponent's repeated calls for a trainer to treat his left leg, while Garcia-Lopez kicked a towel and got into an argument with the chair umpire over a ruling to replay a point in the closing tiebreaker.
Early today, James Blake's career ended in a fifth-set tiebreaker after he won the first two sets. The 33-year-old American lost 6-7 (2), 3-6, 6-4, 7-6 (2), 7-6 (2) to Ivo Karlovic of Croatia. Blake announced Monday this would be his last tournament.