NEW YORK, New York - Two-time quarterfinalist Kaia Kanepi found her New York magic once again to defeat World No.1 Simona Halep 6-2 6-4 in the first round of the US Open.
This marks the first time in the Open Era that the top seed has lost in the first round at the US Open.
Three takeaways from Kanepi's pounding victory:
Kaia Kanepi: Perrenial dangerous floater.
Just utter Kanepi's name at a Slam and players shudder. The 33-year-old big-hitting Estonian has won just 4 WTA titles in her career, but she has made six Slam quarterfinals in her career, on all three surfaces at the French Open, Wimbledon, and US Open. Just last year, Kanepi blasted her way into the quarterfinals as a qualifier - defeating Naomi Osaka and Daria Kasatkina along the way - for her first major quarterfinal since 2013 Wimbledon.
"I think the courts suit my game, and I love being in New York," Kanepi said. "I like the city. I like the atmosphere in tournaments and in the city, also. And I like the weather: humid and hot."
Kanepi can be hot or cold on any given day - or any given game - but when she's on she can be unplayable, and for a set and a half on Monday, that's precisely what she was. Kanepi came out with the right gameplan: keep the rallies short, hit her returns, and take the ball up the line early and often to get Halep on the run. Easier said than done against one of the best defenders in the game, but Kanepi, indeed, made it look easy.
"She's a very strong player, so she has a big chance to do a great result," Halep said of Kanepi. "It's the second time when I played against her and always I felt that she has a very powerful game, so I knew about this. I think she has the good game to go forward in this tournament."
Kanepi kept the rallies short - the average rally length for the match was less than 5 shots - and she was finding great depth on her heavy shots. And when the games got tight (all but two games in the first set went to 30-all), Kanepi just kept swinging and the punches kept landing. She finished the match with 26 winners to 28 unforced errors, compared to Halep's 9 winners and 9 unforced errors.
"I can be aggressive when I want to because she defends a lot," Kanepi said. "But I have time to be aggressive."
"I think players are playing more equal. I think there are not many players anymore who are, like, leading the game. Everybody can beat everybody on a good day, so that's what I also thought, that I know Simona is No. 1, she plays constantly really well, but I can play really well, too."
Simona Halep will rue her missed chance in the second set.
In her first two Slams of the season, Halep made the Australian Open final and won Roland Garros. Since then she has taken a third-round loss to Hsieh Su-Wei and now another first-round loss in New York to Kanepi (Halep lost in the first round last year to Maria Sharapova). On paper, these aren't necessarily bad losses. The quality of both opponents belies their ranking. Hsieh is incredibly tricky, especially on grass, and she has a solid track record of knocking out seeds at Slams. Kanepi was one of the toughest unseeded players anyone could have drawn.
But Halep had match point against Hsieh at Wimbledon and couldn't close out the match. Against Kanepi, the Romanian looked on her way to forcing a third set after battling from 3-0 down to get back on serve at 4-4. Kanepi's level had dropped noticeably once she got the double-break lead and this was starting to look like another instance of the World No.1 reeling in a big-hitter in three sets.
Halep went into the ninth game of the second set with all the momentum and the opportunity to put intense scoreboard pressure on Kanepi. All she had to do was hold her serve to 5-4. Instead, Halep was broken from 40-15 up, gifting Kanepi two key points off poor unforced errors. Kanepi converted on, ironically, the longest point of the match. With both women pounding from the baseline and digging out of corners, Kanepi sealed it on the 14th shot with a tricky forehand volley winner. The Estonian then stepped up and served out the match at 15.
"I think, maybe the first match when I was really down a set and 3-0, and the crowd was really, was strong with me," Halep said. "So I felt the energy. I fought for every ball. I missed three balls, easy balls at 4-All, 40-15. So it's on me. I couldn't take that game, and then she served pretty well.
"So, yeah, I'm a little bit disappointed that I didn't make that game. Maybe I could take that second set and then you never know. But it's just tough to talk now about that. Now it's gone."
As well as Kanepi played for a set and a half, Halep will feel like this one should have been decided in three sets, not two. She let the second set slip through her fingers, and that will be tough to swallow. The idea of capturing the title or even making it through to the quarterfinals was still a long ways away with her tough draw. But with how hard she worked over the summer, winning 11 of 12 matches over two weeks to prepare for New York, this is going to sting.
Halep's exit opens up the top half of the draw.
Even with Halep's loss, the top half of the draw remains fully loaded. Halep was a potential Round of 16 opponent for Serena Williams, Venus Williams, or Svetlana Kuznetsova, and a potential quarterfinal opponent for Karolina Pliskova, Garbiñe Muguruza, Ashleigh Barty, or Maria Sakkari.
Then there's defending champion Sloane Stephens, who could have faced Halep in the semifinals. The Romanian has won their last six meetings, including two big matches this year in the finals of Roland Garros and Montreal.