Day 1 of the US Open 2018 was one of historic proportions.
Not only did the new Louis Armstrong Stadium make its debut, it also saw the demise of the World No 1, Simona Halep, who suffered an early exit at the hands of Estonia’s Kaia Kanepi.
The 14,061-seat stadium is now the second arena at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, and boasts a retractable roof, completing the final stage of a five-year, $600 million project that has remodelled the US Open site, all without ever interfering with the tournament.
The old Armstrong Stadium hosted five decades of championship tennis, memorable matches on a show court that often hid its inadequacies off it.
Rain would send spectators scattering, fleeing onto crowded concourses and toward cramped restrooms, but not anymore.
Opening for business in celebration of the US Open’s 50th anniversary, the new state-of-the-art Armstrong now provides, for the first time, both a day and night sessions, in two stadiums.
I thought I just have to be aggressive and try to stay calm, I cannot say much about this match, just that Kaia Kanepi
Kicking off proceedings was Halep, who was blown away on the first day of the final Grand Slam of the year, making unwelcome history herself as the first top seeded player to lose in the opening round in New York during the Open Era, in fact since 1958.
Although the French Open champion had shown good form during the American hard court summer, winning the Rogers Cup before finishing as runner-up at the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati, she looked fragile on court, and allowed her frustration to boil over, destroying her racket early in the second set, but she showed great fight to recover both the two breaks she suffered to keep her hopes alive.
Halep basically came unstuck and Kanepi, the World No 44, played a brilliant match.
The Estonian reached the quarter-finals at Flushing Meadows last year, but her form has been unremarkable this season.
She is, however, more than capable of blasting through opponents, and a furious Halep found herself on the wrong end of a 6-2 6-4 defeat.
For the first time in three years, Kanepi has beaten a top 20 player, and the Romanian, who broke through for her first Grand Slam title earlier this year, had no answer for the Estonian’s brutal power.
Kanepi fired 26 winners to Halep’s 9, cutting the rallies short and remorselessly punishing her second serve.
“I thought I just have to be aggressive and try to stay calm,” said Kanepi, whose run to the quarters last year is just one of her six trips to the last eight in majors.
“I cannot say much about this match, just that I didn’t really feel the ball,” Halep bemoaned. “But also, she played really strong and pushed me back, so it was tough.”
As Halep pondered why she has been unable to produce her best tennis in New York, a semi-final run in 2015 notwithstanding, the big-hitting Kanepi was feeling right at home in the Big Apple.
“I love playing here in New York, I have always loved it,” she said. “I like the atmosphere in the tournament and in the city. I like the weather – humid and hot.”
Halep’s early exit will surely be viewed favourably by Serena Williams, who was due to meet the top seed in the last-16 after being handed a testing draw of her own.
“Maybe the noise in the crowd, the city is busy, everything together,’’ Halep said during her press conference.
“I’m a quiet person maybe I like smaller places. I don’t really feel 100 per cent on my game when I step on the court here.”
By way of contrast, Williams feels completely at home here and opened her account after the US Open marked its 50th year on Monday evening with a glittering ceremony honouring the tournament’s past heroes and capped by a futuristic performance by pop star Kelly Clarkson.
USTA boss Katrina Adams took the centre court stage to the late Aretha Franklin’s ‘Respect’, before inviting past tennis greats to join her.
The ceremony focused on the social revolution of 1968, when the tournament entered the professional era and Ashe became the first African-American man to claim a Grand Slam title.
The great Billie Jean King, 1968 women’s winner Virginia Wade and Tom Okker, who lost to Ashe in the men’s final, joined Adams on stage in a landmark year for a tournament, which started its open era at the West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills.
Clarkson, wearing a silver-spangled dress, kicked off her performance with hit single ‘Walk Away’ amid sparkling square sculptures.
She performed a few more songs but left few in doubt who the night’s real star was, shouting mid-set: “I love opening for Serena Williams!”
The spotlights were still blinking when Williams, in a black outfit featuring asymmetrical sleeves and a tulle skirt, took to the court.
Her opponent, the 68th-ranked Magda Linette from Poland, held her own in the early going, but Williams gained the only break she needed in the first set in the seventh game, and rolled on from there.
She didn’t face a break point in the 70-minute match, firing 23 winners and wrapping up the second set in less than half an hour.
“I feel pretty good,” Serena said, following her 6-4 6-0 win. “First match of a Grand Slam is always good to get through.”
Williams, who counts six US Open titles among her 23 Grand Slams, can match Margaret Court’s all-time record of 24 majors with another title at Flushing Meadows and her path now is somewhat clearer with Halep’s elimination.
She still faces stern opposition in her quarter, though, with a possible third-round clash with 16th-seeded sister Venus.
A seven-time Slam winner herself, Venus outlasted another former champion, Svetlana Kuznetsova, 6-3 5-7 6-3.
The 16th seed came out strong in the first set, firing winners and attacking the net to put pressure on the Russian, who won the tournament in 2004.
Williams looked like she would cruise to victory when she took a 5-2 lead in the second set, but fatigue appeared to set in for the 38-year-old as temperatures soared to 93 degrees Fahrenheit (34°C) amid high humidity.
Kuznetsova battled back to take the second set and requested a 10-minute heat break before the decider.
The recess appeared to boost Venus, who returned to the court in a fresh shirt, broke serve and raced out to a 3-0 lead.
Kuznetsova battled back again but Venus managed to break the Washington Open champion for an eighth time in the match to end the nearly three-hour contest.
Neither Williams sister is willing to look too far ahead, Venus noting that Halep’s ouster was proof of just how dangerous any opponent can be.
“There are no easy matches,” she said. “The higher you’re ranked, the more that people come for you. It’s just a chance for them to just hit out.”
Spain’s Garbiñe Muguruza, who is also lurking in that quarter, completed a pedestrian 6-3 6-0 victory over World No 34 Zhang Shuai of China, to extend her 16-match win streak in first round Grand Slam encounters.
The woes of the current World No 1 are ones all too familiar for Muguruza, who in her first four appearances in New York saw her win only two matches, and it wasn’t until last year that she had a breakthrough with a run to the fourth round.
In total she has only ever won six matches at the US Open, including her win over Zhang on Monday.
“I really feel for her way because me, at the beginning, for the first four years, I didn’t almost get past the first round.” Muguruza said in response to Halep’s comments. “I was always there and I didn’t really understand what was happening.
“This is a little different than other tournaments, but I’m learning to handle that better because I really want to go far in the tournament. I feel like people love it or people don’t like it. It’s black or white a little bit.”
So how did Muguruza manage to overcome her US Open nightmares?
For her, it didn’t involve changing her fitness program or adjusting her mental approach to the game. Instead, she chose to take the route of an introvert whilst in New York.
“I try not to spend a lot of time outside. There are a lot of people, there is a lot of noise. I always try to be in calm places. I’m happy to go to the park, but I don’t do a lot of shopping,” she explained.
“I do spend a lot of time in the hotel, at this tournament in particular. But that’s my way.”
Muguruza is seeded 12th in this year’s draw and her recent play has been hampered by an arm injury, with her win over Zhang only the second competitive match she has played since Wimbledon.
“I feel I’m trying to be realistic, not trying to set tough goals, even though I always expect myself to go out there and perform well.” She concluded.
In the second round, Muguruza will play Czech qualifier Karolína Muchová, who beat debutant Dayana Yastremska of Ukraine in straight sets.
In her first match under part-time coach Conchita Martinez, Muguruza’s former mentor, Karolina Pliskova beat Zarina Diyas, 6-4 7-6.
The Czech, seeded 8th and in her sixth main draw appearance at Flushing Meadows, was a finalist here in 2016, when she lost to Angelique Kerber, and a quarter-finalist last year.
Pliskova did well to finish the task in straight sets against the ball crunching Diyas, and had to save set points in the second to avoid a decider.
Elsewhere, Tatjana Maria produced an impressive performance to knock out Agnieszka Radwanska, 6-3 6-3.
The German won five games in a row to build a decisive advantage in the opening set, then battled hard in the next to outlast her opponent.
Radwanska will now move outside the Top 50, reaching her lowest ranking since 2007, while Maria moves on to face Elina Svitolina, the same player she upset at Wimbledon two months ago in the first-round.
The Ukrainian, the 7th seed, was stretched to three sets by America’s Sachia Vickery but came through, 6-3 1-6 6-1.
Australia’s Ashleigh Barty, the 18th seed, opened her fourth main draw campaign at US Open with an easy first-round win over Ons Jabeur, bidding to improve her best result at Flushing Meadows, a third-round showing in 2017, while defending champion Sloane Stephens began her offensive with a 6-1 7-5 win over Evgeniya Rodina from Russia.
The only other seed to fall on Day 1 in New York was another Russian, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, the 27th seed, to Sweden’s Rebecca Peterson, 1-6 6-4 6-3.
Britain’s Heather Watson also fell at the first hurdle, losing 6-1 3-6 6-3 to Ekaterina Makarova, yet another Russian, unable to convert more than two of her seven break-point opportunities and going down with a single break in the decider.
Watson came through the qualifying, winning her first senior matches at Flushing Meadows to reach the main draw, but came unstuck by Makarova’s relentless left-handed groundstrokes, which fly both flat and deep into the corners.
She hung on for a gruelling 2 hours and 10 minutes only to notch up her latest loss at the US Open where she has yet to win a main draw match despite holding 16 major titles in her name.
“I definitely felt like I was my most inconsistent,” said Watson. “Sometimes it happens like that, you wake up and you’re not feeling your best, but I felt like I started to play better as the match went on and I fought hard.
“I had some break points in the third set and the errors I made there were costly.”
She will now reunite with Maria for the doubles, with whom she won a WTA title in Acapulco earlier this year, and also reached the quarter-finals at Wimbledon.
“I could have entered the mixed as well,” said Watson, “but I didn’t want to because I am focusing on singles.
“I am entered into Chicago in the second week of the US Open. It’s great that it’s been going well but doubles for me is a bonus.”