On Novak Djokovic’s shock loss to Istomin, and what it might portend

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Denis Istomin gave Novak Djokovic his earliest loss at a Grand Slam tournament since 2008. (AP)

“Nothing,” John McEnroe said in the commentary booth in Rod Laver Arena, “would suggest this was about to happen.”

McEnroe said these words slowly, for emphasis, in an attempt to communicate just how fantastical the scene before us really was. No one watching needed to be reminded. Denis Istomin, world No. 117, was about to beat Novak Djokovic, the six-time Australian Open champion, in the second round in Melbourne.

Over the previous four hours and 45 minutes, the 30-year-old from Uzbekistan had been the more powerful and aggressive player. He had been better in the clutch, winning two tiebreakers by a total of four points. He had survived half a dozen moments when Djokovic seemed about to get his act together, and when everyone watching had said to themselves, “Nice knowing you, Denis, but Nole is going to run away with it from here.”

Now, after breaking Djokovic’s serve in the fifth set, Istomin was serving for the match at 5-4. As New York Times tennis writer Chris Clarey put it when Istomin stepped to the line, “There are upsets, and there are UPSETS.” This one earned its all-caps.

There was indeed very little to suggest that Istomin, who fits that often-unfair term “journeyman,” had this type of sustained performance in him. In the 34 Grand Slam events he had played since 2006, he had lost in the first or second round 26 times. He was 0-19 against the Big Four, and in five matches against Djokovic, he had won just one set. In his last tournament before the Aussie Open, he had lost to 211th-ranked Christian Garin at a Challenger in Bangkok.

Istomin’s role in the tennis circus seemed to have been decided long ago. He would show up, in his customary neon glasses and matching headband, on a big court, early in a major, against a top player. He would wow the crowd and briefly scare his opponent with his ability to crush running ground strokes for winners. And then, at a certain stage, he would stop crushing running ground strokes for winners. With his flashy but eventually erratic shotmaking, Istomin had a knack for making his defeats feel closer than they really were.

For the first three sets against Djokovic, Istomin had played his role to a T. Early on, he had stunned the crowd and Djokovic with lights-out hitting, which continued through the 10-8 first-set tiebreaker and deep into the second set. Then, when Djokovic saved two set points at 4-5, Istomin had dutifully gone away.

The winners had run dry; the balls that had been landing in the corner were now landing in the alley. When Djokovic reached break point early in the fourth set, the writers in the Melbourne Park press room were probably a paragraph deep into their match reports. After all, in the fourth round in Australia last year, Djokovic had made 100 unforced errors against Gilles Simon and still won. This year it looked like he was going to pass his obligatory early-round test a little sooner.

But Djokovic never took the lead in the fourth set. Later, he cited that fact as the key to the match. Instead, it was Istomin who broke serve and went up 4-2, before Djokovic leveled again at 4-4. But then, with momentum on his side and victory in his grasp, Djokovic played a strangely poor game and let Istomin steady himself. Looking back, I thought that was the match’s most important and surprising moment, the one where Djokovic really didn’t look like himself. Every time he tried to get even moderately aggressive in that game, he missed.

“It’s one of those days when you don’t feel that great on the court,” Djokovic said later, “don’t have much rhythm, and the player you’re playing against is feeling the ball very well.”

Istomin hit 17 aces and 63 winners, while committing 12 fewer errors than Djokovic. He was able to keep the pressure up, with his serve and ground strokes, without swinging wildly or going for broke right away.

“He stepped it up, played aggressive,” Djokovic said of Istomin. “Served very well, very precise.”

The 6’2” Istomin is a rhythm player who can put the ball past anyone if he has time. The way to wear him down is to move him from side to side, break up that rhythm, force him to stretch for his two-handed backhand, and hit as many of those low-percentage running forehands as possible. Djokovic couldn’t do that when he needed to.

He couldn’t find the angles he usually finds on his forehand, and couldn’t change directions as freely and easily as he usually does on his backhand. Rather than loosening up over time, his shots stayed constrained and within the sidelines; even in the final game, when he tried go down the line, he missed. Often in matches like this, Djokovic gets to a point where he’ll pull the mental ripcord and lets his shots fly where they might, and it often works. But he never got there on Thursday. Istomin’s heavy pace didn’t give him time.

This loss is Djokovic’s earliest exit at the Aussie Open since 2006. What if anything, does it mean for him going forward? Was it a one-off, or a continuation of a downward trend that began at Wimbledon last year?

Djokovic is 29, and as I’ve written before, 29 has been a Rubicon for his immediate predecessors at No. 1. Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal won 30 majors combined before turning that age; since then, they’ve won one.

Does it mean that Djokovic’s recent losses, especially to Sam Querrey at Wimbledon and Stan Wawrinka at the U.S. Open, have given other players more hope? Probably—Istomin started this match playing like a Baby Stan. Djokovic relies on a combination of speed and stamina like few other players before him, and that will only get harder to do in his 30s.

Maybe this loss shows that any run of domination will naturally mask the close calls that come with it. Djokovic is famous for his consistency, at majors and elsewhere; but he’s also famous for saving match points and making back-from-the-brink comebacks. Being No. 1 for an extended period requires its share of miracles, but by definition you can’t control when a miracle is going to happen. As Federer and Nadal have discovered, at a certain point you start to find yourself on the other end of them.

This time the miracle happened for Istomin, who said he began to cramp in the third set. Afterward, he thanked his mother, who is also his coach, and made what may have been an unintentional joke.

“I feel sorry for Novak,” Istomin said to laughs from the crowd. “I was playing so good today.”

Later, he was asked what he would have said to anyone who had suggested at the start of the year that he was going to beat Novak Djokovic at the Australian Open.

“I would say, ‘Are you crazy or what?’”

Nothing, as John McEnroe said, suggested that Istomin had a chance to beat Djokovic. Nothing, except that it was a tennis match.

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