After two consecutive first-round exits in New York, this time Halep fell in the second-round and after holding a match point, 6-2, 3-6, 6-7(4), in front of a captivated audience on the main Arthur Ashe Stadium.
Halep saved a pair of match points herself on Townsend’s serve at 5-4 in the third but instead of cruising to victory was pegged back in the seesaw tiebreak that ultimately went the way of the world No. 116.
Halep will be ruing the match point she missed, too, a makeable forehand return as her foe served and volleyed.
But then again, the pressure exerted by the lefty couldn’t have been anything Halep had seen for a long time — if ever. How it was all so different for Halep at Wimbledon, when she put in a virtuoso performance against Serena Williams in the final.
Townsend incredibly approached the net 105 times against one of the game’s top counterpunchers, and even though her percentage of points won — 60 — wasn’t overly high, the 23-year-old ultimately won the most important ones and never let Halep settle into a groove on the baseline.
“I’m not surprised because she can play well,” Halep said in her post-match press conference. “If she comes to the net, if she can keep this rhythm, it’s something big. But always when you play with top player, you have nothing to lose. You feel free on court. So that’s why maybe she was able to do it 100% correct.”
When asked if she could ever recall a time facing a player who came to the net that often, Halep was emphatic with her response.
“Never, never,” she said.
Tears of joy
Townsend was in tears after collecting her first top-10 win, having been so close at Wimbledon when she held a match point on Kiki Bertens.
“This means a lot,” Townsend told the crowd. “It’s been a long journey.”
She later went to to say, “I’ve had close matches this year and wasn’t able to get over the hump. This match gives me so much confidence to know I can do it.”
Townsend had never taken a set off Halep in their three previous matches and asked the twice grand slam winner for advice after their most recent clash in Miami in March.
“I was surprised,” said Halep. “I liked it actually. It was nice.”
The former junior No. 1 — who reached a high of 61 in the pro ranks last year — was almost knocked out in qualifying. She trailed Nina Stojanovic in the final round of qualifying by a set and 5-1 in a second-set tiebreak.
Tiebreaks have been a charm, then.
Townsend’s third-round showing at the US Open matches her best ever at a major, also making the third round — at her first major at the 2014 French Open.
She will meet another Romanian next in unseeded Sorana Cirstea.