FOR a while there, it looked as if top seed Simona Halep would duplicate her first round comeback at the French Open yesterday. Down a set and two breaks of serve, she appeared to have found her rhythm at the upgraded Louis Armstrong Stadium to level the count at four games apiece. For pundits, it was reminiscent of her initial stumble and eventual recovery at Roland Garros; she would go on to win her opener and pave a path to her first major championship.
Unfortunately for Halep, the United States Open’s Pro DecoTurf surface failed to be as much of an ally as red clay was two months ago. For the second straight instance at Flushing Meadows, she found herself ousted in the first round. Last year, however, she had a valid excuse; she faced career Grand Slam titleholder Maria Sharapova, who also happened to be extremely motivated to win following a 15-month doping ban from the sport. Yesterday, she had no such obstacle in her way; for all the skills of Kaia Kanepi as a power hitter, the player 43 spots below her World Number One ranking should have had no chance against her.
Tennis is tennis, of course, and upsets do happen. True, Halep looked to be on a roll; in her last four events, she has carved a runner-up finish and two victories, including her breakthrough at the French Open. On the other hand, she has historically been most vulnerable on hard courts. And while she had competed against Kanepi only once before, it needed to go through extra points in a third-set tiebreaker in order to prevail.
Notably, Halep blamed jitters in the aftermath of yesterday’s stumble. “Even when you are there in the top, you feel the same nerves. You are human.” Considering her record, she may well have a point. In 34 appearances so far on the Grand Slam rota, she has exited in the first round a shocking 12 times. It didn’t even matter that the New York crowd — typically on the side of underdogs — cheered her on; she lasted a mere 76 minutes.
If there’s any consolation, it’s Halep’s retention of her premier-rank status on tour. Nonetheless, she understands that, as difficult as it was for her to become first among equals, its infinitely more challenging to remain one. Her latest setback hammered that point quite clearly.
Anthony L. Cuaycong has been writing Courtside since BusinessWorld introduced a Sports section in 1994.