In a titanic upset—the biggest men’s tennis upset in recent memory—Uzbek wild card Denis Istomin knocked off defending champion and six-time champ Novak Djokovic at the Australian Open today, 7-6(8), 5-7, 2-6, 7-6(5), 6-4. There is now a chasm—not a hole—in the bottom half of the draw. After winning four straight majors through the spring, Djokovic has now lost at the last three. But this one is a true stunner. The King of Melbourne, Djokovic was sent off by a player who needed a wild card simply to get in the field. Incorporating as many of your questions as possible:
Well, let’s start with Istomin, a veteran at the tail end of his career who was gifted a spot in the field—he played, and lost, Asian Challengers, for preparation—who played the match of his life. Against perhaps the best player in the history of this tournament and the best defensive player in recent memory, Istomin was sharper and more assertive, clubbing 63 winners. Then at the crucible moment of his career, her served out the match at 5-4 in the fifth set. “I feel sorry for Novak, I was playing so good,” he said afterward. Amen to that.
Worried. Players have lapses. Athletes need mental breaks. Losing two straight Slams isn’t terrible, especially when you reach the final of one of them. But this was the event he’s all but owned since 2008. Losing in the second round to a player you usually beat in your sleep? Not being able to find a way to win against a player outside the top 100? At age 29 which, these days, is still a meaty part of your career? Now we’re in something approaching crisis mode.
Istomin over Djokovic is the biggest upset since…..
I’m at a loss, especially if we limit this to men. Other top contenders have been knocked off at their choice Slam. Roger Federer lost at Wimbledon to Sergiy Stakhovsky. (But he was in his 30s and it was grass, where there are kooky results.) Rafa Nadal lost at the French Open to Robin Soderling in 2009. (But Soderling was a top 10-caliber player.) Djokovic—again, the duke of Melbourne—losing in the second round to a wild is just shocking, an all-time shocker. Maybe George Bastl beating Sampras at Wimbledon in 2002. But this was a stunner…
Ironically we saw the top seed, Andy Murray, turn his right ankle last night, which we thought could change the draw. Djokovic, to his credit, made no mention to physical decline. “We both looked okay after four and half hours,” he said. His shots seemed to lack the usual punch. But he’s always had an allergy to fatigue and was still moving well after nearly five hours. “In the game of tennis,” he said gamely, “one guys beats the other guy.”
Who is Denis Istomin?
He’s been around a while and is perhaps best known for being coached by his mother. He reached a high of No. 33 five years ago, but has declined since. He was here only because the Australian Open awards a wild card to a player from the Asia region. As a player from Uzbekistan, he was eligible.
Who wins this tournament now?
That scream you heard? It was the rest of the field collectively exalting. Andy Murray is the top seed and five-time losing finalist here (four of them coming against Djokovic.) Grigor Dimitrov is a player who is poised for a breakthrough. Really, the whole men’s draw changed on Thursday afternoon.
• Two of the beneficiaries from the Djokovic loss: Grigor Dimitrov and Alexander Zverev, both of whom won in straight sets. Zverev sent off American Frances Tiafoe, who can take consolation in playing competitively against the men’s tennis Flavor of the Month.
• Make middle child jokes at your peril. But all hail Jenn Brady, the American qualifier and former UCLA star who advanced to round three with a win over Heather Watson.
• Not exactly daring to suggest that the fifth seed and finalist at the previous major is a player to watch. But Karolina Pliskova is dialed in, as the kids say. She won today 6-2, 6-0 over Anna Blinkova, scarcely stopping to Blinkova.
• Striking how little we are speaking about Gael Monfils, who is the sixth seed, his highest placement ever at a Grand Slam. The Monf has played six sets and won six sets, beating Alex Dolgopolov—who makes Monfils look steady—handily.