NEW YORK — Venus Williams struggled with her serve. She kept tugging at her dress. Every bit as big a nuisance was her opponent, Shahar Peer.
On a Sunday afternoon in which Kim Clijsters and Rafael Nadal cruised to their victories at the U.S. Open, third-seeded Williams never looked quite comfortable in hers. She defeated the 16th-seeded Peer 7-6 (3), 6-3 on the second straight windy day in Arthur Ashe Stadium.
Williams got only 48 percent of her first serves in. She faced six break points and lost three. She squandered five chances to wrap up the first set in a 22-point 12th game. As for the dress — a red "daytime" version of the black, sequined number she wore two nights previously — well, she spent much of the match tugging at it to keep it at barely high-thigh level.
"No," she said when asked if the dress bothered her. "The only thing that bothered me was when I didn't win the point, I think. That was it."
After the Williams match, top-seeded Nadal took the court and experienced no such trouble. He faced only one break point — and saved it — in a 6-4, 6-4, 6-2 victory over Frenchman Gilles Simon.
Nadal has gone 46-for-46 in service games through his first three U.S. Open matches.
This was the easiest of match of the three.
"Today was a solid match, I think," Nadal said. "The serve is still good, so that's a very important thing. From the baseline, I think my movements and my shots start to improve, to be better every day."
Fourth-seeded Andy Murray, expected by many to make a deep run at this year's U.S. Open, instead made his second straight earlier-than-expected exit from Flushing Meadows — losing to No. 25 Stanislas Wawrinka 6-7 (3), 7-6 (4), 6-3, 6-3 in the third round.
In the fourth round, Nadal will play No. 23 Feliciano Lopez, who won when Sergiy Stakovshy retired with a toe injury. No. 10 Gil Ferrer and No. 8 Fernando Verdasco also advanced — meaning all four players left in Nadal's section of the draw are Spaniards.
Williams' next match is a quarterfinal against No. 6 Francesca Schiavone, who had few problems in a 6-3, 6-0 win over 20th-seeded Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova.
Williams likely will need to play better to get past Schiavone after a match in which the two-time champion looked more like someone who was trying to find her form — which she is after missing most of August with an injured left kneecap — than someone breezing her way through the draw.
"We always have had very competitive matches, so I know it's not going to be something I just walk through when I play against her," Williams said of the matchup against Peer. "I have to stay focused and ready to take every point or else she will. It was a good challenge."
Serving intelligently and handling Williams' power, Peer was surprisingly game, even though she fell to 0-6 lifetime in the matchup and has yet to win a set. Trailing 6-5 and serving to stay in the first set, Peer staved off five set points before finally winning a game that took more than 12 minutes.
But Williams overpowered her in the tiebreaker to wrap up an opening set that took 1 hour, 8 minutes.
"It's not new that I'm trying to win and fighting for every ball and hanging in there every point," Peer said. "But I do think it can give me more for the future, because every time I played Venus I had tough time and she was always kind of killing me every match."