Simona Halep and Garbiñe Muguruza, a pair of two-time Grand Slam champions who have had their difficulties in New York, pulled out tough two-set victories in the opening round of the U.S. Open.
Sloane Stephens then had one even tougher, needing 2 hours, 10 minutes to edge Madison Keys 6-3, 1-6, 7-6 (7) in a rematch of her victory in the 2017 final.
Arthur Ashe Stadium was far from filled for the start of that match, possibly because fans faced delays entering the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on the day they were allowed to return to the tournament.
Halep, who had consecutive first-round exits in the 2017 and 2018 U.S. Opens, held off Camila Giorgi 6-4, 7-6 (3). She didn't play in last year's fan-less event.
"So for me it was normal to have the people in the stands and the noise that is always in the U.S. Open," Halep said. "I started to like it. I start to embrace these things. I had fun on court, and I liked some people that were screaming in Romanian also and in English."
Muguruza, the No. 9 seed, advanced with a 7-6 (4), 7-6 (5) victory over Donna Vekic.
Those were two of the earliest victories as the tournament welcomed back spectators after being played last year without fans because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The grounds were packed throughout the day and figured to be again at night when defending women's champion Naomi Osaka played her first-round match.
But spectators complained of delays, which the U.S. Tennis Association said were largely caused by the time it took to inspect their bags.
At the South Gate, around 12.30pm local time, the line of some 5,000 fans stretched about a quarter mile. About 3,000 fans stood before the East Gate, on a line going back roughly 300 metres around the same time.
"Patrons have brought an inordinate number of bags this year, all of which need to be searched," the USTA said in a statement. "This becomes the main choke point for entry."
The USTA added that it was exploring ways to improve this entry process for the remainder of the tournament, and that the checking for proof of vaccination required for entry this year was going smoothly and was not a major contributor to the delays.
Halep missed the French Open and Wimbledon — the two major tournaments she has won — with a left calf injury, and her return to Grand Slam tennis came at the one where she's had her least success.
Her loss to Kaia Kanepi in 2018 was the first time the No. 1 seed lost in the first round of the U.S. Open in the professional era. She acknowledged after that defeat that maybe the noise of New York just wasn't her scene, and the sounds were back Monday with the stands again allowed to be filled to full capacity.
"I lost a few times in the first round here, so I got a little bit of the experience from those moments," Halep said. "There is no other way. So I have to accept it. I have to like it and to be part of it."
Long lines and big crowds were a readjustment for any players. Keys had to wait while serving midway through the second set of her match as fans were late returning to their seats after a changeover.
Halep was in some danger again against Giorgi, an Italian who recently won a hard-court title in Montreal for the biggest victory of her career. The No. 12 seed was broken while serving for the match at 5-4 but recovered to win the final four points of the tiebreaker.
Muguruza has also won the French Open and Wimbledon, but the U.S. Open is the only major where she hasn't reached the quarterfinals. She was knocked out in the first round just two years ago.
But she steadied herself in both tiebreakers against Vekic, who reached the quarterfinals in 2019.
On the men's side, No. 5 Andrey Rublev swept past Ivo Karlovic 6-3, 7-6 (3), 6-3, and No. 11 seed Diego Schwartzman beat Ricardas Berankis in straight sets.
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