NEW YORK — Nineteen years ago, Venus Ebony Starr Williams wandered into her first US Open draw and, at the age of 17, managed to reach the final. She lost there to a 16-year-old kid named Martina Hingis.
But while Hingis would retire from singles after the 2007 season, Williams kept on going. And going.
Tuesday afternoon, at the age of 36, when she stepped onto the court at Arthur Ashe Stadium, there was a leap into tennis history. It was Venus' 72nd appearance in a Grand Slam singles main draw, which surpassed the Open era record of fellow American Amy Frazier. At Wimbledon, Williams broke the men's record of 70, by Fabrice Santoro, and reached the semifinals, her best major performance in six years.
How's that for slamming those tennis balls grandly?
A year ago, she made the quarters here, losing to sister Serena. In fact, the only real context for the quality and quantity Venus still produces comes from Serena, who is 15 months younger — and remains the world's No. 1-ranked player.
Williams eventually handled Kateryna Kozlova, 6-2, 5-7, 6-4, but she may have turned 37 during the match. The running time: 2 hours and 42 drenching minutes, the longest women's match so far.
The final result wasn't exactly surprising; Venus is 18-0 in first-round matches here at the US Open, one behind all-time leader Chris Evert.
"Nice," she said, laughing, when the statistic was relayed to her during an on-court interview. "I'm grateful for that record."
On some level, she should be grateful that Kozlova didn't serve even a tad better. Venus broke her in eight of 15 service games, the difference in the match.
Williams was the living definition of hit-or-miss, with 46 winners and 63 unforced errors.
"Yeah, today I had to hit a lot of balls," she said. "Hopefully that will help me going forward when I get into some tough spots. I'm going to try to keep that momentum."
Venus had never played the 22-year-old Ukrainian before, but it was her 14th career match against a player named, in some shape or form, Kateryna. There have been seven different ones over the years, from Katarina Studenikova (1998) to Katarina Srebotnik (1999) to Ekaterina Makarova (2010) to Catherine Bellis earlier this year.
It's been five years since Venus disclosed that she suffers from Sjogren's syndrome, an autoimmune condition that reduces her energy level and prevents her from practicing as much as she would like.
As the oldest woman in the draw, she is playing in her 18th US Open, the most among active players. It's hard to believe she won back-to-back titles in 2000 and 2001.
Venus is the No. 6 seed in this tournament, meaning only five players have demonstrated a consistent ability to be better over the course of the past year. She's listed at 6-foot-1, but three-time Grand Slam singles champion Lindsay Davenport swears she's 6-3. That gives Venus enough leverage to continue hitting powerful serves and groundstrokes with enormous depth.
Her half of the court still looks smaller than the other side.
However, there have been a few concessions to age:
Sometimes a half-step slow moving forward, Venus isn't always positioned properly to hit her trademark volleys.
Nerves and double-faults creep into her service games, making her more vulnerable to breaks.
On long rallies, Venus' groundstrokes are typically the ones that break down, especially the forehand.
Against Kozlova, Venus saw her serve broken six times and threatened numerous others. She was up a set and 3-0 and 5-2 in the third before locking it down.
Kozlova, a solid defender, played quite credibly, despite the fact she has yet to win a Grand Slam main-draw match. She has never beaten anyone ranked higher than No. 39.
Venus Williams was pushed to the limit in her first-round match by 22-year-old Kateryna Kozlova, but overcame 63 unforced errors to prevail 6-2, 5-7, 6-4 in 2 hours and 42 minutes.
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In the changeover following the first game, Venus started back onto the court but turned to pick up a towel. Kozlova was already into the narrow gap between the net post and the umpire's chair, but stopped abruptly and might have even taken a half step back to allow Venus to pass.
Such is the deference due her from a young player.
When Kozlova's last backhand found the net, Venus unleashed one of her eternal Mona Lisa smiles and slowly raised her fist.
"Once you're at this level," everyone can play," she said. "It's always hard. It's never easy."