Belgrade: do we have a problem?

19 Jan

Novak Djokovic, the six-time men’s singles champion at the Australian Open, was defeated in five sets in the second round of the tournament in Melbourne on Thursday. Paul Crock/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images Screen Shot 2017-01-19 at 1.56.46 PM.png

MELBOURNE, Australia — In one of the biggest upsets in Australian Open history, Novak Djokovic, a six-time champion in the tournament, was defeated in five sets in the second round by Denis Istomin, a wild card from Uzbekistan ranked 117th in the world.

With Istomin’s stunning 7-6 (10-8), 5-7, 2-6, 7-6 (7-5), 6-4 victory, Djokovic, ranked No. 2, suffered his earliest defeat in a Grand Slam tournament in nearly nine years.

It was also the latest blow to Djokovic’s battered aura of invincibility. In June, after winning the French Open for the first time, the elastic Serb held all four Grand Slam singles titles at the same time. Now, he is the reigning champion only in Paris.

“He was an underdog, but he didn’t show any nerves in the big moments,” Djokovic said about his opponent after the match. “Surely he didn’t play that many big matches, but just everything came together for him. It was the right moment for him, the right day, and he was better.”

Djokovic was upset in the third round of Wimbledon last year by an American, Sam Querrey, surprised in the final of the United States Open by Stan Wawrinka, and then shocked on Thursday afternoon by Istomin, who made it into the Australian Open only by winning an Asian wild-card event.

Photo

Denis Istomin of Uzbekistan, ranked 117th in the world, gave Djokovic his earliest defeat in a Grand Slam tournament in nearly nine years. Credit Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

But although Djokovic and the other members of the so-called Big Four have dominated tennis over the last decade, there is great depth and danger at the lower levels. Istomin, a 30-year-old in wraparound sunglasses, made it clear from the start that this could be a struggle. The opening game required 16 minutes before Djokovic won it and raised both arms in celebration.

But Istomin would be the one exulting nearly five hours later, when he finished off the biggest win of his career with a powerful first serve down the middle that Djokovic, one of the best returners in history, lunged for and reached with his backhand but could not manage to put back in play.

“First of all, I feel sorry for Novak; I was playing so good today,” Istomin said after the match. “I surprised myself as well.”

“So many lines!” Djokovic complained at one frustrated stage as Istomin hit another winner.

But though this might have been vintage Istomin, it was far from vintage Djokovic. At his best, the 29-year-old is one of the most consistent baseline players in history. On Thursday, he had more unforced errors (72) than winners (68), and he also looked tentative at some major turning points.

“There was intensity, of course,” Djokovic said. “We played four-and-a-half hours. It’s just that, you know, it’s one of these days when you don’t feel that great on the court, don’t have much rhythm, and the player you’re playing against is feeling the ball very well. So, you know, that’s sport.”

His defeat leaves Andy Murray, the world’s No. 1 player, as the favorite to win his first Australian Open title. But Istomin’s big moment will give many lesser-ranked men faith that they, too, can play the match of their lives in Rod Laver Arena.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

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