MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA— The man has won the Australian Open no fewer than six times, and was hoping to move past the redoubtable Roy Emerson by collecting a seventh crown in the land “Down Under”.
He had captured his season opening 2017 tournament with a triumph in Doha, eclipsing Andy Murray in the title round of that event. He had looked reasonably sharp and immensely motivated during a first round, straight set victory here in Melbourne over Fernando Verdasco. But Novak Djokovic was most assuredly blind-sided by the sterling showing of one Denis Istomin in the second round of the season’s first major, and out he went in four hours and forty eight minutes against a player ranked No. 117 in the world who needed a wildcard to get into the main draw of the “Happy Slam.”
There was nothing happy about what happened in Rod Laver Arena in this startling contest for Djokovic, who was bidding for a third title in a row. He was upended 7-6 (8), 5-7, 2-6, 7-6 (5), 6-4 by the 30-year-old from Uzbekistan. In my view, this one ranks right near the top of the shockers registered in the modern era of the men’s game. Seven-time Wimbledon victor Pete Sampras was knocked out in the second round at the All England Club in 2002 by lucky loser George Bastl of Switzerland in five sets, and no one saw that coming. In 2012, Rafael Nadal was bludgeoned by a madly inspired and almost reckless Lukas Rosol on the Centre Court over five sets on the hallowed British lawns, also in the second round. Those were indeed astonishing upsets.
And yet, Istomin’s triumph over Djokovic today may rank at the top of my list for many reasons. Not only is he ranked No. 117 in the world, but his career match record at the four majors was no better than 31-34. At the Australian Open, he was 8-10. His career match record in all tournaments was 195-209. The best he has ever done at a Grand Slam championship is to reach the fourth round. To be sure, Istomin has been ranked much higher in the past, rising to a peak of No. 33 in the world five years ago. But the fact remains that Istomin has been essentially a journeyman across his entire career. In 33 previous clashes against top ten ranked players in his career, Istomin had pulled off only one win, toppling David Ferrer at Indian Wells in 2012.
Moreover, Istomin walked on court with a 0-5 record against his renowned adversary. In those duels with Djokovic, Istomin had garnered only one of thirteen sets. Twice—in 2010 and 2014— Djokovic had handled Istomin in straight sets at the Australian Open. How in the world did this same player overcome a 12-time Grand Slam singles champion on this occasion?
It was a bizarre confrontation from start to finish, on so many levels, in a multitude of ways. Djokovic has only himself to blame for not getting safely across the finish line against an adversary he has owned. First and foremost, the Serbian did not play the big points with anything like his normal acumen. He won 193 points in this encounter while Istomin took only 186. Djokovic converted on 6 of 15 break points; Istomin made good on only 4 of 14. But in the tightest situations of a tense encounter, when the chips were on the line, it was Djokovic who was found wanting. It was Djokovic who seemed to be playing not to lose rather than displaying his boldest tennis in an assertive attempt to win. Finally, it was Djokovic who failed to impose himself at crucial junctures when Istomin was on the brink both physically and psychologically. Take not a whisker away from Istomin, who elevated his game in the spotlight and played stupendously down the stretch. He performed as majestically as he ever has and almost certainly better than he ever will. But the fact remains that Djokovic let himself down enormously and lost a match he should definitely have won.
The first set lasted an astounding 85 minutes; the first game alone consumed 16 minutes.There were nine deuces in that opening game before Djokovic held on. He raised his arms mockingly to the crowd, expressing his frustration in a jovial manner. In turn, Istomin kept thwarting Djokoivic all through that set with clutch serving. When the Serbian had a break point for 3-1, the underdog unleashed an ace out wide, soon holding on to make it 2-2. Two games later, Istomin was twice a point away from trailing 4-2 but he provoked an error from Djokovic on one break point and wiped away the second with another ace. He held on for 4-3 and broke Djokovic in the next game despite a cluster of shanked shots and a let cord winner.
Istomin gained the break for 4-3 but an unwavering Djokovic got it right back and drew level at 4-4. They travelled to a tie-break, and Djokovic moved comfortably ahead 4-1. Istomin released two scorching first serves and a pair of blazing forehands to lead 5-4, and had a set point with Djokovic serving at 5-6. But Djokovic came out of that corner and had a set point on his own serve. The set seemed just about in his pocket when Djokovic sent a penetrating backhand down the line and followed it in. On the run, however, Istomin directed a squash-shot forehand slice down the line that somehow skimmed the top of the net and left Djokovic compromised. Istomin rallied to win the tie-break 10-8.
Djokovic was clearly deflated by not closing out that set. There is no better front runner in tennis. He is virtually unstoppable under those circumstances. But now he had to battle from behind and the Serbian could well have been down two sets to love. At 2-2 in that second set, Djokovic had a break point but, as he did far too frequently in this showdown, the Serbian harmed himself decidedly with passivity. A mediocre backhand slice from Djokovic was easy prey for Istomin, who drove an inside out forehand into the clear. Istomin made it to 3-2. Both men held without much trouble until Djokovic served to stay in the set at 4-5.
The No. 2 seed got exceedingly tight,. At 15-15, he missed a two-hander down the line under no pressure. Then he double faulted meekly into the net. That put Djokovic down double set point at 15-40, but his response was stellar. An immaculate first serve down the T set up a forehand winner down the line for 30-40. He went to deuce with an ace down the T. A neatly produced backhand volley winner gave Djokovic a game point, and he surged back to 5-5 with an inside out forehand winner.
Istomin was shaken, almost visibly so. At 5-5, he wandered to 0-40, saved two break points, but Djokovic got him on the third by ripping a backhand down the line that opened the court for a crosscourt winner with his two-hander. Djokovic held at love to seal the set 7-5, taking 12 of the last 14 points. Twice a point away from trailing two sets to love, Djokovic had drawn level at one set all. The momentum was entirely on his side of the net. At 1-1, 30-30 in the third set, Djokovic prevailed in a 28 stroke rally. He realized at this stage that Istomin was losing his legs. After the match, Istomin conceded that he was cramping in that set. Djokovic forced an error from Istomin to break for 2-1 in that third set, played a loose game on his own delivery and allowed his opponent back to 2-2, but thereafter it was all in his control for the rest of the set. In sweeping four games in a row, Djokovic won 16 of 21 points to take the set 6-2.
The world No. 2 was up two sets to one and the fellow from Uzbekistan was sorely down in the dumps. It was seemingly time for Djokovic to go for the knockout blow, to grab an early break and keep on going, to remove any vestige of hope from Istomin. And the Serbian had that chance in the very first game of the fourth set. Istomin was serving at break point down. Djokovic had garnered nine of the previous eleven games. This was more than just another break point opportunity for the six time champion; it was a chance to pull away inexorably from Istomin and march on confidently to victory. But,inexplicably, Djokovic did not seem to sense the urgency. He carelessly netted a routine forehand. Istomin held on for 1-0, and Djokovic compounded his problems by opening the following game with a double fault.
Suddenly, Istomin recovered his morale, revived his spirit and reignited his game. He broke Djokovic for 2-0 and held easily for 3-0. Djokovic got on the board in the fourth game but Istomin held at 15 for 4-1. Now Djokovic raised his intensity and briefly reversed his fortunes. He held at 30 for 2-4, and then, with Istomin serving in the seventh game, the Serbian struck some gold. Istomin was ahead 4-2, 40-30 but Djokovic’s excellent return gave him the opening for an inside out forehand winner. He took the next exchange as well, creating a break point opportunity, and sealed it spectacularly.
Istomin played an angled drop shot that Djokovic chased down. Inventively, Djokovic sliced his backhand pass down the line for a crowd pleasing winner. He had broken back at a propitious moment for 3-4. At ace out wide at 3-4, 40-30 lifted Djokovic to 4-4. But after Istomin held on in the ninth game, Djokovic served at 4-5 and was set point down. He escaped when Istomin bungled a forehand into the net. Djokovic willed his way to 5-5. Both men held to make it 6-6. As the tie-break commenced, they had been on court for four hours and two minutes. The time had come for Djokovic to meet a critical moment with his most inspired and aggressive tennis, but he did not manage to make that happen.
Istomin broke a 1-1 deadlock in that sequence with supreme authority. He got the quick mini-break for 2-1 before succeeding with a forehand down the line winner and an ace. He was up 4-1. Then Djokovic made a surprising backhand unforced error to allow Istomin the luxury of a 5-1 lead. The world No. 117 extended his lead to 6-3 but gamely Djokovic fought off two set points, forcing Istomin to serve it out. Istomin came through with flying colors, acing Djokovic out wide. Exultantly, he took the tie-break seven points to five. It was two sets all.
The Djokovic fourth set comeback had all come to naught, and on they went to a fifth and final set. Djokovic had the advantage of serving first and a second serve ace out wide allowed him to hold at 15 for 1-0. Istomin raced to 40-0 in the second game but a backhand down the line return winner from Djokovic made it 40-15. He captured the next two points for deuce, but Istomin stymied the Serbian with an outstanding first serve down the T that Djokovic could not handle. Then a backhand slice floated long on Djokovic. Istomin had averted some potentially deep danger. It was 1-1.
Djokovic remained sharply focussed and resolute. He held at love for 2-1 and then had another small chance with Istomin serving at 30-30 in the fourth game. Once more, however, Istomin stung Djokovic severely with another unanswerable first serve down the T in the deuce court. An overhead winner carried Istomin on to 2-2, and then he made his move. On the first point of the fifth game, he passed Djokovic brilliantly with a backhand crosscourt. Djokovic missed a forehand approach: 0-30. An ace from the Serbian made it 15-30 but Istomin walloped a forehand return off a second serve for 15-40. A bit overanxious, Istomin squandered that first break point but on the second at 30-40, he was magnificent, measuring a backhand down the line impeccably and connecting for an outright winner. The break was achieved by Istomin. He was leading 3-2. There would be no looking back.
And yet, Djokovic, pushing hard to get even, reached 15-30 in the sixth game. Istomin wasn’t budging, not in the least. An ace down the T made it 30-30. A forehand down the line winner gave Istomin 40-30 and he surged to 4-2 with a searing service winner. Djokovic held easily in the seventh game but Istomin, buoyed by an ace out wide for 40-0, held without the loss of a point for 5-3. Djokovic proceeded to hold at 15 in the ninth game but he was far too restrained in the last game of the match. Istomin held at 15 to close out the stirring account, concluding the contest with a pair of unstoppable first serves. His five set victory was hard earned and well deserved, and a testament to his poise under pressure and willingness to blast away freely down the stretch. Yet Djokovic was not the fearless competitor who has so often salvaged victory from the sands of defeat by mixing offense with defense like no other player.
For Novak Djokovic, this defeat may have lasting implications. To be entirely frank about it, he had no business losing to Denis Istomin, who played some madly inspired tennis and somehow recovered physically down the stretch, often looking fresher than Djokovic. The Serbian had come into this contest with a 27-8 career five set record. He prides himself on his extraordinary physicality. He expects to wear down even the most durable of his opponents. In the 2012 final here, Djokovic outlasted Rafael Nadal in five hours and fifty three minutes across five enthralling sets in the final.
Djokovic will recover from his startling upset defeat at the hands of Istomin. I believe by Indian Wells and Miami he will be playing great tennis again, and performing more on his own terms. But, in the short term, as he heads home, digests this disappointment, tries to understand what went wrong and recognizes how he let it get away after leading two sets to one, he will be filled with sorrow. A great champion lost a very important tennis match to a player he knows he should have beaten, and the sad reality of his failure will linger in a back compartment of Djokovic’s mind for quite some time.