— The venerable Venus Williams played a roller-coaster tennis match Friday that ended badly, for her and her ongoing comeback attempt at age 34, when the wheels finally came off.
She lost to Sara Errani of Italy, a player she had beaten in all three of their previous matches and against whom she had never lost more than three games in a set.
The score was a head-scratcher: 6-0, 0-6, 7-6 (5).
Playing before a mostly full Ashe Stadium crowd (capacity 22,500) that verbally tried to push, pull and prod her to victory, Williams returned the affection with spectacular moments. She also made 52 unforced errors.
In the first set, she was listless, appearing to be tired. She had played a long doubles match with her sister, Serena, that ended at 8 p.m. Thursday. At the start Friday, she looked like someone who would be better off at home in bed, under a doctor's care. Then, in the second set, she looked like someone capable of winning this U.S. Open title.
It was that strange.
Errani, 27, is no mail-it-in matchup. The seedings actually said that she would be the favorite. She was listed at No. 13, six spots better than Williams. She also has been in two major semifinals and one final, the 2012 French Open, where she lost to Maria Sharapova.
She is also the No. 1-ranked doubles player, and has won a doubles career Grand Slam. Still, she is 5 feet 4, Williams is 6-1, and in the past, it has been a matter of the bigger player squashing the bug.
It appeared to be heading that way again after Williams left Errani with a bagel in the second set.
In the third, Williams kept going and got it to 5-3 on her serve. She had gotten there by taking advantage of the Italian's would-not-break-a-wine-glass serve, which begins with an awkward two-part motion — racket on the shoulder and then the toss — and seldom produces a speed above 85 mph.
But Errani is nothing if not determined.
"I like to play not that aggressive," Errani said, "but I know that, with Venus and on that court, you have to be more aggressive than I can."
Williams saved one break point at 5-3, but never got to match point and was broken when she flew a forehand long. Williams had others chances, and even after she cranked a forehand well long off one of Errani's 63-mph serves, sending the match into a tiebreaker, she appeared to have the advantage in the tiebreaker because of her big serve.
Instead, it turned out that Errani's quickness and net savvy were the advantage. Williams trailed 5-2, got it back to 5-5, and then was forced to rush the net for an Errani drop shot that was a perfect setup for a putaway volley.
That brought match point, where Errani hit a cross-court forehand that wrong-footed Williams and, conceivably, may have sent the now legendary player on her last exit walk from Ashe Stadium.
She has fought through a serious illness that has fatigue as one of its effects, and she has even beaten her No. 1-ranked sister recently in her attempt to add to her seven major titles. But her last major victory was in 2008 at Wimbledon and her last major final was the next year at the same place.
One of the three surviving U.S. men's players, Tim Smyczek, was bounced in his second round match by No. 17 Roberto Bautista Agut of Spain, 6-3, 6-2, 6-1. The other two, John Isner and Sam Querrey, play Saturday, Querrey against No. 1 Novak Djokovic.