No. 1 Simona Halep Exits the U.S. Open in the First Round
It only seemed as if Simona Halep made history Monday in a New York minute. Actually, it took all of 76 minutes for her to become the first No. 1 women’s seed in the history of the United States Open to lose in the first round, falling by 6-2, 6-4 to Kaia Kanepi.
As Halep’s trademark on-court soap operas go, the stunning upset was still swift, almost routine. Kanepi, a 33-year-old Estonian who is ranked No. 44, dominated a sluggish Halep in the first set before halting her rally to 4-4 from 0-3 in the second in the first main-draw match at the new Louis Armstrong Stadium.
How to explain Halep’s tournament being finished before lunch, even if the Romanian has a history of first-round flameouts — 12 in 34 career Grand Slam events — and Kanepi has six major quarterfinals on her résumé, including one a year ago in New York?
Halep did not cite fatigue, despite runs in consecutive weeks this month to the finals in the Rogers Cup and Western & Southern Open, winning the former and losing the latter before withdrawing from last week’s event in Connecticut. She did not blame the noisy conditions in the otherwise well-received Armstrong Stadium, where open-air walkways and concessions create a continuous din. She did admit that, for whatever reason, “I never play my best tennis” in New York.
True to character, honest as usual in her post-match confessional, Halep suggested it was more the voices in her head that most contributed to the dismal end to a Grand Slam season that began with a heart-wrenching defeat to Caroline Wozniacki in the final of the Australian Open and a long-awaited breakthrough title at the French Open over Sloane Stephens
“Yeah, nerves,” she before adding with a guilty-as-charged smile, “because I’m born like this, I think.”
It can be painful to watch players struggle against their emotional demons in their lonely line of work, but that makes it even more exhilarating to witness an eventful exorcism.
To that end result, Halep was moved to joyous tears in Paris after the Stephens match, during which she seemed headed to a fourth major final defeat before wearing down her opponent and accelerating to the finish. So was her coach, Darren Cahill, who resigned the position for a spell, exasperated by Halep’s futile bouts with self-loathing.
The demons apparently never stray far enough away to be permanently neutered. This summer, even as she tightened her grip on the top ranking that she will maintain despite Monday’s defeat, Halep was seen on television summoning Cahill to the court during one changeover in Montreal — he waved her off — and despairing to him for having missed a second-set match point against Kiki Bertens in the Western & Southern Open final before wilting in the third.
Her matches have become compelling docudramas, as psychologically draining as they’ve been physically grueling. Generously listed at 5 feet 6 inches, in an era long since labeled Big Babe Tennis by the broadcaster Mary Carillo, Halep has brilliantly fought her way to the top of the tour by winning wars of tactical attrition against comparative giants.
Cahill convinced her over the last two years to go bigger on her groundstrokes, with obvious success. But nothing much worked in the first set and the next three games of the second against the 5-foot-11 Kanepi, who mercilessly attacked Halep’s 80-plus miles-per-hour second serve, belting clean winners and breaking her four times.
Between sets, Halep discarded her cap, but that didn’t stop the bleeding. She was broken immediately and then, after a wide backhand to start the second game, she violently introduced her racket to the hard court — twice.
“It’s no problem venting and getting all this stuff out, that’s no problem, as long as you are willing to make a difference,” Cahill had lectured her in one of his memorable on-court pep talks during a 2017 match with Johanna Konta in Miami. “And if she beats you playing great tennis, no worries. Shake her hand and tell her well done.”
By the time Halep reached the media conference room on Monday, that was the conclusion she appeared to have reached. The stat sheet was in full agreement. Kanepi hit 26 winners to Halep’s 9. Halep won 30 percent of her second-service points (6 of 20) compared with Kanepi’s 60 percent (9 of 15).
“She played really strong, pushed me back,” Halep said.
Cahill, she said, had given her a hug and “said that it’s all right.” She knew coming into the match that the draw had not been kind. Kanepi was certainly no pushover — if not quite the first-round challenge that Maria Sharapova was in ousting Halep, then the No. 2 seed, at the Open last year.
Initially impassive to Kanepi’s first-set level, the Armstrong crowd, swelling with the scent of an upset, tried to lift Halep by chanting her first name. Kanepi wondered what was up with that after breaking Halep’s second-set momentum by turning around a 40-15 deficit to break back to 5-4 before serving out the match.
“Why they cheer so much for her? Because normally they cheer for the underdog,” Kanepi said.
She was smiling, no doubt aware of how Serena Williams’s absence from the tour after the birth of her daughter last September had cast an episodic spotlight on others, especially in the United States. In the grand scheme of things, Halep at her size could be considered an underdog against many of her top opponents, including those vexing demons within.