Kaia Kanepi reminds Halep that no player can outrun a well-struck ball

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WATCH—Tennis Channel reaction to Simona Halep's opening-round loss at US Open: 

NEW YORK—Let it be recorded that the first shot hit in the new Louis Armstrong Stadium was a missed forehand—a shanked forehand that ended up in the crowd, to be exact—by Kaia Kanepi.

Then let it be recorded that Kanepi hardly missed another important shot. Seventy-six minutes later, the Estonian had christened the new arena in stunning style, and pulled off the win of her career, 6-2, 6-4, over No. 1 seed Simona Halep.

This match had made a lot of people’s lists of first-round encounters to watch. The 33-year-old Kanepi is the definition of a “player no one wants to see in their draw.” In her long career, the 33-year-old Estonian has reached the quarterfinals at the French Open, Wimbledon, and the US Open two times each, and she has been ranked as high as No. 15.

More important for this day, Kanepi is exactly the type of opponent who gives Halep trouble. She’s 5’11”, imposing and athletic, and she can hammer the ball for winners from both sides. Against the much-smaller and more defensive-minded Romanian, Kanepi was guaranteed to get her swings in. And Halep knew it.

“You want to know my reaction when I heard?” Halep said with a smile when she was asked what she thought when she saw Kanepi in her bracket. “It’s very tough, very tough draw for sure. It’s going to be a big challenge.”

“I feel that I have the game to win against her, but she’s very dangerous.”

You don’t often hear a world No. 1 talk as if she’s the one who is hoping to match up well against her opponent, that she’s the one who isn’t sure she can hang with the 44th-ranked woman. Halep was right to worry, obviously. She came into this event having played in 33 Grand Slam events, and she had lost in the first round at 11 of them. She certainly knows how it feels to get a bad draw here: Last year at the Open, Halep lost in the first round to Maria Sharapova.

Halep reacts to a lost point in her opening-round loss in New York. (Anita Aguilar)

While Halep pushed Sharapova to a third set in 2017, she could never get her teeth into her match with Kanepi. She could never, in other words, make it into a running contest instead of a hitting contest. Kanepi broke Halep at 1-1 in the first set with a topspin lob, and the winners began to flow from there. She broke again at 3-1 with a service-return winner, and she served out the set easily.

Kanepi’s easy control of the rallies continued until she was up 3-0, two breaks, in the second set. Then the turnaround that we had been waiting for finally began. Halep broke back, Kanepi’s winners quickly turned to errors, and the match was suddenly level at 4-4. At the French Open, Halep had lost the first set of her first-round match, to Alison Riske, before going on to win the tournament. Today, when she pumped in a 92-M.P.H. second serve to go up 40-15 at 4-4, I began to wonder if we were going to see a repeat of Roland Garros.

But there was one major difference between New York and Paris: Kanepi has a bigger game than Alison Riske. Once the score was tied and the pressure of having the lead was off, Kanepi began to show that big game again. At 4-4, she hit two strong forehands to reach deuce, and at break point she won the rally of the match with a forehand drop volley. By then, all Halep could do was slam her towel to the ground and throw a glare at coach Darren Cahill. At 5-4, Kanepi didn’t show a hint of nerves in holding serve. She had her cool back and her shots back, and she had her upset.

Asked what she likes about playing Halep, Kanepi said, “Because I can be aggressive when I want to, because she defends a lot. I have time to be aggressive.”

Kanepi celebrates her straight-set win over Halep. (Anita Aguilar)

“She has been playing really well lately,” said Kanepi, who claimed that, more than anything else, she felt pressure having to defend her quarterfinal points from last year’s Open. “I thought I just have to be aggressive and try to stay calm.”

Looking at the stats, the winners and unforced errors canceled each other out: Kanepi hit 26 winners and made 28 unforced errors, while Halep made nine of each. The story of the match was told instead by the forced errors: Kanepi forced Halep into 25 of them, while Halep could only force 10 out of Kanepi.

With her last Grand Slam of the season suddenly over, Halep was subdued but smiling. All she could do, essentially, was shrug at her bad draw.

“Today I just lost,” Halep said. “I didn’t play great, but she played really well. I knew that she can play well here...I didn’t find the balance today. I couldn’t play better, so that’s it.”

“I cannot say much about this match, just that I didn’t really feel the ball. But also, she played really strong and pushed me back, so it was tough.

“It’s tough. But it’s OK.”

Did Halep psyche herself out of this match? Maybe—she certainly didn’t sound like a dominant No. 1 when she talked about it beforehand, and she didn’t attack like a dominant No. 1 when she got on court. Still, the bigger story for her is less mental than physical: At 5’6”, she’ll continue to be vulnerable to power hitters like Kanepi, especially in first rounds when she’s still feeling her way into the tournament.

Halep has proven that you can run your way to No. 1, but no player will ever out-run a well-struck ball.

Wake up every morning with Tennis Channel Live at the US Open starting at 8 a.m. ET. For three hours leading up to the start of play, Tennis Channel’s team will break down upcoming matches, review tournament storylines, breaking news and player developments.

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Watch the best matches from the first three Grand Slams on Tennis Channel PLUS. From Federer’s historic win at the Australian Open to Halep’s breakthrough at Roland Garros. It all starts Monday, August 27th.  

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