NEW YORK -- After her latest early Grand Slam exit, Venus Williams was asked what the future holds for her at the US 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 couple of 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 US 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."
The American acquitted herself well for stretches, erasing deficits over and over again, 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 alone lasted 1½ 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 in all, half on forehands, in part because Zheng kept scrambling along the baseline to get to balls and block them back, making Williams hit extra shots.
During her on-court interview, Zheng addressed the partisan crowd that was raucously pulling for Williams in Louis Armstrong Stadium: "First, I want to say, 'Sorry, guys.'"
Rain began falling in the early afternoon, jumbling the schedule, and eight women's singles matches were postponed entirely, including one between Williams' younger sister Serena against Galina Voskoboeva.
Other women's winners included 2011 French Open champion Li Na, 2012 Wimbledon runner-up Agnieszka Radwanska and 30th-seeded Laura Robson of Britain. Robson beat Li last year in New York, and now they'll have a rematch.
"I remember being so nervous when I walked on court," the 19-year-old Robson said. "She made a lot of mistakes in the first set, which helped quite a lot. Hopefully she'll do that again."
Sloane Stephens' second-round match did not get started until nearly midnight, and the 15th-seeded American made sure she got off the court in a hurry.
Stephens needed only 58 minutes to reach the third round for the second time by beating 38th-ranked Urszula Radwanska of Poland 6-1, 6-1 in a match that ended a little before 1 a.m. ET Thursday.
Stephens needed three sets and nearly three hours to win her opening match. But this one was far easier, as she hit 24 winners and only five unforced errors.
"Before the match, I was like, 'Man, normally I would be sleeping at this time,'" said Stephens, who will play No. 23 Jamie Hampton in an all-American matchup in the third round.
Venus Williams and Zheng played all of two points before being interrupted by showers. When they resumed two hours later, Williams kept making mistakes.
"I couldn't pray a ball in," she said.
But in the second set, Williams more like someone who won the US Open in 2000 and 2001, and five Wimbledon titles.
Every point she won, it seemed, drew clapping and screaming from on-their-feet spectators.
"I love that. I wish I could play some more for that," Williams said. "I want to come back here just for that, at this point."
A drizzle halted action elsewhere, but Williams and Zheng continued.
Zheng led 4-1 in the tiebreaker, before Williams made one last stand. But at 5-all, Williams put a backhand volley into the net as she lost her footing.
"I should have made the shot," Williams said. "I was just rushing."
That gave Zheng her first match point, and Williams' backhand return missed, ending her stay in the singles draw.
As she pointed out more than once during her news conference, there's still doubles to play with her sister.
The older Williams hasn't been ranked in the top 10 in 2½ years. The last time she made it beyond the third round at a major tournament was a fourth-round appearance at Wimbledon in 2011.
At the 2011 U.S. Open, Williams withdrew before her second-round match, announcing she had Sjogren's syndrome, an illness that causes joint pain and fatigue.
She lost a three-setter in the second round in New York last year.
Two of her previous four trips to major tournaments ended in the first round, including at the French Open in May. Because of her back, Williams sat out Wimbledon for the only time in her career in June.
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. I've been dealt some cards that aren't as easy to deal with, but I have to play with them. The last few months haven't been easy, coming back from the back injury," Williams said.
"I feel like it's definitely affected my game, but I'm working on it," she added. "I'm a fighter."
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.