Simona Halep’s U.S. Open lasted one hour and 16 minutes on Monday.
That’s how long it took Kaia Kanepi, the 44th-ranked player in the world, to defeat Halep, the world No. 1, in the opening match on the new Louis Armstrong Stadium court.
The loss made history. Halep became the first No. 1-seeded woman to lose in the first round of the Open in the Open Era.
Halep had been ranked No. 1 since February after losing in the final of the Australian Open to Caroline Wozniacki. She then beat Sloane Stephens in the final of the French Open for her first Grand Slam victory. She beat Stephens again in the final at Montreal at the start of the month and looked to be on a steep ascent.
My, how she fell.
Kanepi’s 6-2, 6-4 victory was well-earned, her serve and groundstrokes outclassing Halep right from the start, and her determination at the end was decisive. Kanepi went for her groundstrokes and hit 26 winners (a few drop shot winners thrown in) and teed off on Halep’s second serve, winning 14 of those 20 points.
It’s been both a successful and tiring summer for Halep, winning in Montreal followed by a loss in the final of Cincinnati. She pulled out of the New Haven tournament last week.
“I was tired after Cincinnati, so I needed to rest. I took the rest. But today I just lost,” Halep said. “I didn't play great, but she played really well. I knew that she can play well here. She played quarterfinals last year. I didn't find the balance today. I couldn't play better. So that's it.”
Halep was clearly frustrated at the start of the second set, and tested the resilience of the Armstrong court with her racket. The court won, and after replacing the offending weapon, she still was down 0-3. That’s when the chants of “See-Mo-Na” began and that’s when it seemed she was mounting a comeback. She got those two breaks back and took the set to 4-4.
She was serving 40-15, then came the collapse. When Kanepi broke her again, the crowd switched allegiance and gave her a warm ovation. The “See-Mo-Na” chants were silenced. “I missed three balls, easy balls at 40-15. So it's on me,” Halep said.
The cheers for Halep caught Kanepi’s ear. “I was thinking about that, why they cheer so much for her, because normally they cheer for the underdog,” she said with a smile. “Now they cheer for her. It was a bit annoying for some time, but I got over it. Just try to play as I am supposed to be playing.”
Kanepi isn’t a total outsider when it comes to Grand Slams, having reached the quarterfinals at the French, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, most recently losing to Madison Keys at Flushing Meadows last year after having to qualify for the main draw. That finish earned her a lot of ranking points, meaning there was a lot on the line in defending them.
Halep will still be No. 1 when the new rankings come out after the Open. That’s largely because she wasn’t defending many points from the Open last year after being bounced out in the first round by Maria Sharapova.
Though disappointed, Halep didn’t seem downtrodden about the loss. Having won that first Slam at the French, there’s seems to be a renewed source of confidence on a bad day.
“After winning a Grand Slam, the pressure is off. So I'm trying just to relax more,” Halep said. “But it's always tough to lose a match, because I'm very competitive player. And also when I go on court, I want to give everything I have. So it's tough to lose. Sometimes I have tears. It's normal. But now I feel better. I feel that it just was a bad day, and I will move on fast.”