NEW YORK -- The pressure built slowly on this already oppressively hot Monday at the US Open, changing the narrative unfolding in Louis Armstrong Stadium. Top-ranked and top-seeded Simona Halep was awarded the honor of playing the inaugural match in the brand-new stadium, but things went sideways from the very start.
Kaia Kanepi, a 5-foot-11 Estonian with a bruising power game, led Halep 6-2, and already had a break at 1-0. She served the first point of the next game to Halep's forehand and crushed the return, pre-empting a rally.
Halep took a step, paused as if thinking things over, then exploded: She smashed her racket into the court twice, and just as quickly straightened up and calmly walked toward her chair, wiping her brow with her wristband.
Pressure, it seems, is an unavoidable fact of life for Halep. And it comes in different forms. Since winning the French Open in June, she has repeatedly asserted that "the pressure is off." It might be true in one sense; she now has her major, after two near misses. But the mental challenges for the top players at a Grand Slam don't evaporate quite so easily.
There's also this matter of first-round jitters, as Halep once again learned when she became the first top women's seed to lose in the first round of the US Open in the Open era, falling to Kanepi 6-2, 6-4 in a brisk 76 minutes "It's always about the nerves," Halep said afterward. "Even when you are there on top, you feel the same nerves. You are human, so it's the same thing [at every tournament]."
All too human, in Halep's case.
But that's one of the reasons the 5-foot-6 Romanian is such a favorite with fans. She'll run and fight until she drops, but has never quite mastered her emotions or snuffed out a lingering streak of negativity.
"For me, it's more difficult in the first rounds," she admitted. "Because I'm more emotional. That's why I need a good start."
The numbers bear her out. She's 28-12 in the first round at majors. By comparison, Caroline Wozniacki (a fellow one-Slam winner with whom Halep shares a number of qualities) is 42-6, while Victoria Azarenka, a two-time major champion, is 43-7, and that includes some tough losses incurred since her return from childbirth. Serena Williams? Don't even ask.
Yet Halep has taken great strides of late. When she secured the No. 1 ranking last October, while still a Grand Slam bridesmaid, skeptics rolled their eyes. Earlier in 2017, she lost the second French Open final of her career -- this time after leading 20-year-old Jelena Ostapenko by a set and 3-0.
Halep produced a convincing rebuttal this year. She played a courageous Australian Open, hobbling through a number of grueling matches on a bad ankle before she finally succumbed to Wozniacki in a tense, seesaw, three-set final. Then in May, Halep finally punched through with a win at the French Open.
"Definitely my dream came true," Halep said Thursday at the US Open media day. "Inside myself something changed. I'm more relaxed. I feel thankful for everything I achieved. Always I say, 'No. 1 in the world without a Grand Slam, you are not a real No. 1.' After French Open, I really started to believe that I'm a real No. 1."
Kanepi has had significant experience with "real" No. 1 players, winning two of five encounters with them. Kanepi sometimes gets her recreational kicks racing men on the treacherous ice drift roads of Finland. Oft injured, the 33-year-old still managed to reach six Grand Slam quarterfinals by playing fearless, go-for-broke tennis. A woman with an easy smile but few words, she said of her game plan: "I thought I just have to be aggressive and try to stay calm. That's what I should do."
Kanepi found it easier to implement Part A of that plan, nearly tripling Halep's production in the winners department (26-9). That despite a glitch in Part B of her program, the bit about remaining calm. Soon after Kanepi built a commanding 6-2, 3-0 lead with her blazing groundstrokes and sharp volleys, the wheels began to fall off. Halep recorded her first break of the match when Kanepi double-faulted away the next game. In the blink of an eye, it seemed, it was 4-all and volleys of that familiar chant -- "Si-Mo-Na! Si-Mo-Na!" -- were echoing in the Louie like cannon fire.
"I was thinking about that, why they cheer so much for her," Kanepi said afterward. "Normally they cheer for the underdog. It was a bit annoying for some time, but I got over it."
Halep aided Kanepi's recovery by playing a poor game at 4-all. She lead 40-15 but, by her own admission, "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 [to close it out]."
Much was made right up until this morning about the quarter of the draw led by Halep. It's the sluggers' section, containing the Williams sisters as well as No. 8 seed Karolina Pliskova and No. 12 Garbine Muguruza. All hit a big ball, as does Kanepi.
Halep had no superstitious reservations about playing the first match on the new Louie. "I'm happy I was first one there, even if I lost," she said, smiling. "It is a nice stadium, and every court here, it's beautiful. It was all good."
Good, but better for Kanepi.