US Open 2018: Scrambling Simona Halep falls at first hurdle, needs to up her game to keep top spot

Even at the world No 1 level, after having won a Grand Slam, Simona Halep doesn’t strut, she scrambles.

Legs racing, heart pumping, she can turn any match into a battle. But there are times when she just doesn’t have the ammunition to win one. On Monday, Estonia’s Kaia Kanepi came out all guns blazing to upset Halep 6-2, 6-4 in the opening round at the US Open. It was first day, first show, first shock at the newly rebuilt Louis Armstrong stadium.

Standing tall at 5’11, Kanepi and her swashbuckling game have somewhat of a reputation. And there was more than a hint of worry in Halep’s comments when she learnt that she would be opening her US Open campaign against the 33-year-old Estonian.

Simona Halep hits a forehand against Kaia Kinepi of Estonia in the US Open 1st round match. Reuters

Simona Halep hits a forehand against Kaia Kanepi of Estonia in the US Open 1st round match. Reuters

“It’s very tough, very tough draw for sure,” said Halep, who was drawn in the same half as the Williams sisters, ahead of the tournament. “It’s going to be a big challenge. I feel that I have the game to win against her (Kanepi), but she’s very dangerous. Our part is very tough, the part of the draw. Actually, (Coach Darren Cahill) told me first thing it was the toughest one.”

Though Kanepi’s career has been riddled with injuries, she has had her share of success on the big stage. She has made the last eight at a Grand Slam eight times and the last time she defeated a world No 1, was when she got the better of Caroline Wozniacki at the Pan Pacific Open in Tokyo in 2011. Last year, she had come through the qualifiers at the US Open and hit her way into the quarter-final.

Halep knew what was coming her way. But she couldn’t really stop the tide of winners from the Estonian’s racquet. Kanepi took charge of the court, and the rallies, hitting 26 winners past Halep to score an unlikely victory. It was the first time in the Open Era that a women’s top seed had fallen in the first round at the US Open.

“Today was not my day; the balance was not there,” said Halep, who has now lost in the first round of a major 12 out of 34 times. “I couldn't feel myself strong on the court to win this match. I was actually practicing okay yesterday and two days ago, but that's it. It's just a day, and it's a bad day for me. She deserved to win because she was playing better than me today.”

Though ranked 44 in the world, Kanepi knew the match up against Halep would give her some opportunities. Halep’s weaker serve and reluctance to step into the court meant Kanepi could impose her big game.

And the Estonian was off in a rush, winning five of the first six games. Kanepi swung freely on the returns, winning 51 percent of the receiving points. She had 13 winners to Halep’s six, to claim the first set 6-2. With the hard courts playing faster than Halep’s favoured clay, Kanepi robbed the small-built, quick-footed Romanian of time.

Halep did try to claw her way back into the match, recovering from 0-3 down and 4-2 down in the second set to level it 4-4. In the French Open final against Sloane Stephens, being an inch away from defeat had liberated her, dared her to leap. But in the melting heat of New York, her fightback evaporated quickly. Rather than using the momentum she had built to level the set, Halep made two uncharacteristic unforced errors to concede the ninth game on her serve, after being 40-15 up. The usually calm Halep then raged during the games break, slamming her racquet onto the bag. She knew it was a done deal; The Romanian had given up the fight. Kanepi served out for a match without resistance.

“I missed three balls, easy balls at 40-15. So it's on me,” Halep said.

Having reached the finals of the Australian Open and then finally claiming her maiden Grand Slam at the French Open, it has been a tougher second half of the season for Halep. She lost in the third round at Wimbledon; won the Montral Masters but suffered another tough defeat at the Cincinnati Masters finals against Kiki Bertens. The 26-year-old had pulled out of the Connecticut Open last week due to a sore right Achilles tendon. Her physical game means she would undoubtedly he tired by now, though coming into the Open Halep had said, "I was tired, but positive tired because I played so many matches in Montréal and Cincinnati. So I didn't feel the pressure of winning a Grand Slam, and feeling the pressure of 'How is it gonna be now?' No, I didn't feel that."

Moreover, the US Open hasn’t always been a perfect fit for her game or her personality. Her semi-final finish in 2015 is her best show at the Slam. She had bowed out in the opening round last year as well after losing a three-set battle against the returning Maria Sharapova.

“I never play my best tennis here, even if I've done quarterfinals, semifinals," she said ."I feel like my game is not at its best, at the best level. Maybe the noise in the crowd. The city is busy. So everything together. "I'm a quiet person, so maybe I like the smaller places.”

Despite the early defeat, Halep will retain the world No 1 position, extending her reign at the top of the rankings to 28 weeks. With players like Serena Williams and Angelique Kerber back on the upward curve, she will have to scramble hard to keep it.

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Updated Date: Aug 28, 2018 13:39:53 IST

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