“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.