The US Open upsets continue, both in the men’s and women’s field, during the first week of the tournament. In-form Alexander Zverev is the latest victim. Zverev was deemed one of the favorites to win the US Open, before losing to Borna Coric yesterday. Although upsets are not exactly the norm in men’s tennis, early exits for top female players are just as painful, even if not as surprising. Second seed Simona Halep bowed out of the US Open in the first round, losing a tough match against Maria Sharapova. Johanna Konta, 7th seed, was the victim of the talented and dangerous Alexandra Krunic. And defending US Open champion, Angelique Kerber, was forced to yet another disappointing defeat by Japan’s Naomi Osaka. Each of these US open upsets though has a different cause-and-effect story behind it. Let’s see them one by one.
2017 US Open upsets: Simona Halep
Simona Halep went into the 2017 US Open tournament, with only 5 points separating her from the WTA world number 1 spot. This practically meant she had to outperform current world number 1, Karolina Pliskova, by one round to make it to the top. In what shouldn’t have been a first round Grand Slam match, Halep lost to Maria Sharapova in 3 sets. Undeniably, Halep was unlucky with the US Open draw. She had to play against a top 10 player –in reality- and one she hadn’t managed to beat in 6 encounters.
Arguably, Sharapova being given a wild card by the US Open organizers was a crowd-pleasing decision, having little to do with what is right and fair. But the fact remains, that Simona Halep can’t rise to the occasion when the stakes are high. Masha has played less than a dozen official matches in 2017, yet she managed to be as competitive and fierce as she’s always been. Halep, who has been the most consistent player throughout the year, only showed her truly competitive face when she was 4-1 down in the second set. But as the match progressed further, it was obvious that it is still too difficult for Simona to dominate a match on a big stage.
Why did Simona Halep lose to Maria Sharapova?
This year, Simona Halep has been playing similarly to how Angelique Kerber played during her incredible 2016. Excellent fitness level, easily forces long rallies against big hitters, generates angles that draw opponents off the court. The difference is that Halep rarely makes the transition from her “retrieving mode” to an aggressive finish. Sharapova had to patiently stick to her game through 64 unforced errors, in order to generate the 60 winners that propelled her to victory. It takes a special kind of mental attitude to do that in the biggest tennis court of the world, the Arthur Ashe Stadium. When the stakes are high, when the encounter is intense, the player who can prove mentally tough enough to harness the tremendous energy –instead of yield under it- has the most chances to walk out victorious. That is what Sharapova is made of (and made for). Simona Halep is not quite there (yet?).
Definitely among the most memorable moments of the 2017 US Open.
2017 US Open upsets: Johanna Konta
Johanna Konta’s breakthrough effectively started in 2015, when she beat Garbine Muguruza to advance to the third round of the US Open. Ever since, Konta has been nothing but improving on all aspects of her game and –most importantly- her mentality. Fed Cup team captain, Judy Murray, had commented on her struggles with anxiety back then. But in her most recent Wimbledon run, Johanna Konta emphatically showed that her mental struggles are a thing of the past. It wasn’t only the big stages and tough opponents that forced her to forge a stronger character. But also the fact that she became a household name in Britain, practically overnight. Why, then, was Johanna Konta the victim of a first round upset by Serbian Alexandra Krunic, in this year’s US Open?
Why did Johanna Konta lose to Alexandra Krunic?
In her own words, Konta lost to a player who played much better than her that night. Indeed, her serve was below par, she was way too mechanical vs a freely-hitting Krunic and she lost almost every point when she had to approach the net. She looked bewildered by Krunic’s performance and variety of shots for most of the match. Aside from this particular loss, I feel there was another defining moment for Konta’s approach to the game, in between her 2015 US Open performances and her 2017 Wimbledon run. Her quarter-final loss to Serena Williams in the 2017 Australian Open. After that match a tearful Konta told the reporters that it was one of the best experiences of her life. And went on to add:
I think there’s so many things I can learn from that, so many things I can look to improve on, and also acknowledge some things that I did well. I’m generally quite an emotional person. I think I’ve never hid that away. I’ve worked incredibly hard to direct that emotion into a positive way and into a constructive way on court.
I don’t know many people who would have had that kind of attitude, after being blown off the court at the QF of a Grand Slam. Konta seems to know how to handle a loss and use it as a spring to jump even higher. In that sense, her loss to Krunic might turn out to be a win in the long run.
US Open upsets: Angelique Kerber
Angelique Kerber losing to Naomi Osaka is perhaps the biggest of the US Open upsets in this first week in New York. Osaka is no Sharapova and Kerber is way more seasoned than Johanna Konta. Still, there was something about this upset that caused more smirks and sympathy nods than surprise.
Since she started 2017 in Brisbane, Angelique Kerber hasn’t just struggled to find her form, as many like to say. Kerber’s performances this year have allowed relatively unknown players to enjoy significant breakthroughs, just because they managed to beat her. When Elina Svitolina, currently ranked 4th in the world, knocked her out of Brisbane and Dubai, it was a shocker. Daria Kasatkina beat her in Doha and CoCo Vandeweghe knocked her out of the Australian Open, where she was the defending champion.
By the time Sloane Stephens beat her in Toronto for the Rogers Cup, not only wasn’t it a surprise any more, but it was clear that Angelique Kerber was an easy target for determined and hungry players to finally start making a name or restore their own confidence. Naomi Osaka, a player who has been trying to break through the rankings for a couple of years now, didn’t miss the golden opportunity under the Arthur Ashe Stadium closed roof.
Why did Angelique Kerber lose to Naomi Osaka?
In January 2016, in the first round of the Australian Open, Angelique Kerber was match point down vs. Misaki Doi. It could have been another early exit for a player who wasn’t mesmerizing the crowds with her tennis. A player no one –not even herself- thought was on her way to achieving the things she achieved that year. It could have been, but it wasn’t. Reflecting on that, Kerber has said:
I think this point where I was match point down, that was the important point for my career. You never know when I lost the match what’s happen then. I was playing since then, like, without expectation, without nothing, just enjoying everything.
Fans and the media can argue forever on what is wrong with Angelique Kerber and each of the arguments will have some merit. Many excuses have been used to justify her losses (the pressure, the fatigue, the clay courts, the “bullseye” on her back). But the bottom line is we haven’t seen Kerber playing without expectation (from herself) or enjoying anything at all this year. And if she can’t be passionate about her game again, relax and enjoy it, opponents will keep giving her reasons not to.
Here is a more in depth review of Angelique Kerber’s 2017 tennis season.