The last shot collided with the tape trickling wide of the sideline.
Smiling in relief, Venus Williams raised her arms in triumph, looking like a weary traveler who had finally reached her destination after an arduous journey and was too tired for extensive celebration.
On a day in which the 36-year-old Williams established an Open Era longevity record contesting her 72nd career Grand Slam, staying power pulled her through the longest women’s match of this US Open.
The sixth-seeded Williams fought off scrappy Kateryna Kozlova, 6-2, 5-7, 6-4 battling into the US Open second round for the 18th time.
“That’s crazy,” Williams said when informed of her Grand Slam record. “I’m grateful and I’m blessed. All I’m hoping for is just health that I can keep that record going. I don’t know when I’m going to stop playing. I don’t have plans now. I’m playing too well to be thinking about stopping.
“I appear to be getting better each and every month. So I’d like to make that record hard for someone to break.”
The two hour, 42-minute battle began as a blow-out and escalated into a complicated cliff-hanger.
Nineteen years after reaching the Flushing Meadows final in her US Open debut, Williams had to dig down for resilience overcoming 63 unforced errors and a defiant Kozlova, who lost nine of the first 11 games before rallying to force the decider.
That bad news for Williams: She lost energy and her edge in the second set and committed 31 of her 63 errors from her flat forehand wing, which can be unruly under pressure.
The good news for the two-time US Open champion: She moved well, continued to attack and regained control in the final stages.
“I just wanted to continue to play aggressive,” Williams said afterward. “I think the errors told the story today. I had so many errors. I wanted to play aggressive, but I wanted to get those balls in, too. So I want to change that for the second round.”
Contesting her 77th career match on Arthur Ashe Stadium, Williams powered to a 5-1 lead at the outset. She converted four of five break points snatching the opening set in 38 minutes.
Kozlova couldn’t hold serve as Williams built a 3-0 second-set lead. But the 93rd-ranked Ukrainian began playing closer to the baseline and ran down nearly everything the powerful sixth seed threw at her to level at 5-all.
A tight double fault and forehand error put Williams in a bind and when she sailed a forehand, Kozlova broke for 6-5. She served out the 63-minute second set to force a decider.
“After the second set, I was so motivated, honestly I was ready to play an even more aggressive game,” Willliams said. “I was ready to play even more aggressively. I think in the beginning of the second, I was just too eager so I had to kind of pull back and try to play smart but still aggressive because the game she plays is just pure defense, it appears, and she does well with it.”
Resetting, Williams burst out to a 5-2 advantage in the decider and again appeared poised to create closure.
Kozlova, who says she would have pursued a career as a hip-hop dancer if not for tennis, worked through the wiggle room on the largest Grand Slam stadium stage again.
Serving for the match at 5-3, Williams, who can be averse to using the challenge system, declined to challenge a Kozlova shot that replay showed was out. Williams missed a forehand and suddenly it was triple break point. She fought off four break points, but on the fifth Kozlova caught the sideline with a forehand breaking again for 4-5.
The scrappy Kozlova saved one match point, but her comeback fell short when her final backhand tripped off the tape and settled wide.
A year after Williams subdued Monica Puig in the 2015 first round, 6-4, 6-7 (7), 6-3, she prevailed in another marathon raising her three-set record to 5-7 on the season.
Williams will recover and perhaps watch some of sister Serena Williams’ opening-round match on Ashe against Ekaterina Makarova before gearing up for a second-round clash with Germany’s Julia Goerges, who stopped former semifinalist Yanina Wickmayer, 6-3, 6-2.