In one of the longest matches in Australian Open history, Novak Djokovic was bounced from the 2017 Australian Open in the second round after losing to Denis Istomin 67(8) 75 62 67(5) . The match was an absolute shocker, for many reasons, but first and foremost because Djokovic has won this tournament six times, including five of the last six years. In fact, Djokovic had reached the quarterfinals or better in Melbourne every year since 2008. Djokovic had not lost before the third round of any Slam since Wimbledon back in 2008. Additionally, Djokovic had never before lost to Istomin, with the World #2 winning all five of their previous meetings.
Djokovic was inconsistent throughout the entire match, but he wasn’t poor. There were moments of brilliance punctuated by strings of errors. Some credit for that has to go to Djokovic’s opponent, though. Denis Istomin played some of the best tennis of his life to force Djokovic to play from uncomfortable positions for the entire match.
Istomin came out swinging, showing that he would match Djokovic punch for punch from the outset. The very first game of the match–with Djokovic serving–lasted well over ten minutes, setting the tone for the entirety of the match. This was a grueling, hard-fought affair that lasted through the day and into the night session.
After an exchange of breaks, the opening set went to a tiebreak, which Istomin managed to take in a nervy back-and-forth. The Uzbek had set points on Djokovic’s serve at 4*-5 in the second set, but he couldn’t convert and was promptly broken by Djokovic, who then held to take the second set. In the third set, it felt like Djokovic was back to his dominant ways, winning 6-2 with three breaks of serve.
To everyone’s surprise, though, Istomin fought back in the fourth set. He broke Djokovic early and looked re-energized in the match. He couldn’t hold on, though, getting broken back at 4*-2. Istomin didn’t let that get him down, though. He held his serve twice and took the fourth set in dominating fashion in the tiebreak.
No one believed that Istomin could win this match, even after he forced a fifth set. In fact, live-betting markets of the match had Istomin at almost six-to-one odds after the opening game of the final set and getting as high as seven-to-one after Istomin held for 2-2. As soon as Istomin broke for a 3-2 lead, though, the belief came–both in the stadium and on the internet. With two more holds, Istomin celebrated by smashing the ball into the stands after four hours and 48 minutes of grueling, physical tennis.
This was the first match we’ve seen in years where Djokovic was just beaten from the baseline. He’s had losses over the years, sure. Sometimes a big hitter managed to successfully hit him off the court. Sometimes a player like Andy Murray managed to out-grind him and wear down a victory. And sometimes, like in last year’s Wimbledon match against Sam Querrey, Djokovic has just played a terrible match.
This was something else entirely. Denis Istomin stood toe-to-toe with Novak Djokovic from the baseline–a la Roger Federer in the 2011 French Open semifinals. Of course, this wasn’t entirely on Istomin’s racket. Djokovic was far less consistent than we are used to seeing from him. He hit over 70 errors, many of them truly unforced. Part of that was certainly due to not seeing a player throw big groundstrokes at him from the baseline like Istomin did all match, but a significant part of it was Djokovic just not being at his best.
So what does this match mean now? It certainly has to be a wake-up call to Djokovic. His ranking at #2 is not in any real jeopardy right now–his results at Masters over the past year guarantee that. But this is a troubling sign. It is the second out of the last three Slams in which Djokovic has lost before the second week. He seems to not quite have the power from the baseline that he had even a year ago–players like Istomin can now hit with him from the baseline instead of being pushed too far behind it to be useful. Djokovic is still one of the best players in the world, but unless he can fix what went wrong in this match he is far from unbeatable now.
What does this match mean to Istomin? It is certainly the biggest win of his career. He has reached the fourth round of a Major twice, so this is technically not yet his career-best showing, but it is without question his biggest win. He was a combined 0-19 against Djokovic, Federer, Murray, and Nadal before this match. Now, he has the inspiration and belief to play with anyone, anywhere.