World number one Simona Halep was swept aside 6-2, 6-4 by 44th-ranked Kaia Kanepi on Monday, the first top-seeded woman ever to lose in the US Open first round.
It was the kind of Grand Slam history Halep could have done without as she tried to expunge the memory of her first round loss to Maria Sharapova at Flushing Meadows last year.
But the Romanian, who broke through for a first Grand Slam title at the French Open this year, had no answer for Kanepi’s power.
The Estonian fired 26 winners to Halep’s nine, and even her 28 unforced errors weren’t enough to derail her challenge as she cut the rallies short and remorselessly punished Halep’s second serve.
“I thought I just have to be aggressive and try to stay calm,” said Kanepi, whose run to the quarter-finals last year is just one of her six trips to the last eight in majors — although she has never gone farther.
The victory let some light into a tight quarter of the draw that also includes 23-time Grand Slam champion Serena Williams, seven-time Slam winner Venus Williams and two-time major winner Garbine Muguruza.
For Halep it was a swift end to the dream of a second major title to go with the French Open she won in June.
The Romanian, whose number one ranking is not in jeopardy, had no excuses.
“I cannot say much about this match, just that I didn’t really feel the ball,” Halep said. “But also, she played really strong and pushed me back, so it was tough.”
Kanepi took the match by the throat with a run of five straight games in the opening set. She was up 3-0 in the second before Halep dug in to force it back to 4-4.
“I think I didn’t go that much anymore for my shots. That’s why it came to 4-4,” Kanepi said. “So I thought I have to hit more aggressive again, and I tried to do that.”
It worked. Up 40-15 in the ninth game, Halep was unable to hold serve and Kanepi efficiently served out the match, earning a standing ovation from a fickle crowd on the new Louis Armstrong Stadium court that had been chanting for Halep as she mounted her comeback challenge.
“It felt really good,” Kanepi said of the ovation, admitting she was a little miffed by the earlier support for Halep.
“I was thinking about that, why they cheer so much for her, because normally they cheer for the underdog.”
Halep said she wasn’t caught off guard by Kanepi, who beat Caroline Wozniacki in Tokyo back in 2011 when the Dane was ranked number one in the world.
“I expected her to play like that, without fear and hitting the balls really strong,” said Halep, whose defensive posture gave Kanepi all the room she needed.
“I can be aggressive when I want to, because she defends a lot. I had time to be aggressive,” said Kanepi, who earned a second-round meeting with Swiss qualifier Jil Teichmann, a 6-3, 6-0 winner over Dalila Jakupovic in her first appearance in a Grand Slam main draw.