NEW YORK - Simona Halep has played the best tennis of her career this season, but her old demons re-emerged Monday when she lost in the first round at the U.S. Open for the second straight year. After bowing out to Maria Sharapova as the No. 2 seed on the tournament’s opening night in ‘17, Halep fell to unseeded Kaia Kanepi, the world No. 44, in straight sets on Monday, becoming the first top-seeded woman to lose in the U.S. Open first round in the Open Era.
Halep’s early defeat—2-6, 4-6 at the revamped Louis Armstrong Stadium—is somehow both surprising and extremely unsurprising. In 34 career Grand Slam singles events, Halep has lost in the first round a staggering 12 times. So in that way, Monday was more of the same. But this isn’t the same Simona Halep. Before Monday, she hadn’t lost an opening match at a tournament in 2018, something she did three times last year. And while the WTA’s tremendous depth lends itself to upsets, Halep has been close to unflappable this summer, winning her first Grand Slam at Roland Garros and continuing her strong play en route to a title in Montreal and reaching the final in Cincinnati.
In an era defined by parity, Simona Halep has emerged as the tour’s clear No. 1 player, the favorite to win any tournament she plays (except perhaps on grass). So let’s take a moment to praise Kaia Kanepi; It isn’t easy to knock out Simona Halep, especially not in 2018. The veteran Estonian didn’t play a perfect match—her unforced errors mounted in the second set—but she demonstrated tenacity down the stretch, withstanding two Halep breaks in the second set. Halep didn’t play particularly well on Monday, but Kanepi, a quarterfinalist here last year, managed to punch her way through Halep’s counterpunching style and racked up 26 winners against one of the game’s best defenders—no small feat.
The upshot of Halep’s loss is the clearing of the draw for Serena Williams, who now takes over as prohibitive favorite to advance from Halep’s quarter. Halep and Williams, who is seeded No. 17, were on a path to meet in the fourth round, with the winner of that match likely emerging as the favorite to win the tournament. If you didn’t consider Serena or Simona the favorite to win the title, it was probably—at least partially—because they were drawn uncomfortably close to each other. Williams holds an 8-2 head-to-head edge over Halep, but they haven’t played since 2016. And Halep is a much better player now than she was two years ago.
Suddenly Serena’s draw doesn’t look nearly as daunting. If she wins her first two matches, she’ll still have a challenging third-round opponent in either Svetlana Kuznetsova, Camila Giorgi or perhaps her sister Venus, who is seeded 16th. And yes, she’ll likely have to get through either Garbine Muguruza or Karolina Pliskova in the quarterfinals. But Halep likely would have challenged Serena more than any other player in her quarter.
Kanepi should celebrate a deserving victory. But in the long run, Monday’s big winner might have been Serena Williams.