Novak Djokovic is out of the Australian Open after falling in the second round to journeyman Denis Isotomin, the 117th-ranked player in the world.
The result of the 4 hour, 48 minute marathon (7-6 (8), 5-7, 2-6, 7-6 (5), 6-4) is an absolute stunner — the most shocking upset of the young tennis season and, for Djokovic, perhaps the worst loss of his career.
Djokovic, who has won six of his 12 grand slams at the Australian Open, entered as the second-ranked player in the world. Though Andy Murray has been the best player in the world of late, Djokovic no doubt had Rod Laver’s record seven Australian Open crowns in his mind in Melbourne.
Isotomin, meanwhile, only earned a place in the main draw through a wild card berth. As ESPN explained:
“Istomin gained his way into this major only via a wild-card berth. Before this tournament, he had only $860 in earnings this year. That’s it. At 30, he’s one year older than Djokovic, but he was still bouncing between $50,000 Challenger tournaments and the ATP main tour, where he has won only one career title. In 2016, Istomin compiled an 8-22 overall record.”
The loss is Djokovic’s earliest exit from a grand slam since Wimbledon in 2008. Indeed, ESPN called it the most shocking upset of his career. And yet, Djokovic’s form since he won the French Open in 2016 to complete the career grand slam has been in steady decline.
After his win at Roland Garos, Djokovic was upset in the third round at Wimbledon by American Sam Querrey, lost in the US Open final to Stan Wawrinka, and then lost in the first round of the Olympics to Juan Martin Del Potro. Leaving the court in Rio, Djokovic wept. Then, in December, after losing his world No. 1 ranking, Djokovic split with his long-time coach Boris Becker.
According to ESPN, Djokovic is now working with Pepe Imaz, a Spanish coach whose tennis academy is “based on the principles of peace, harmony, love and understanding the power of lengthy hugs.”
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what has caused Djokovic’s recent implosion. During his 122-week reign as the top player in the world, he was so strong — both physically and mental — that even when he wasn’t playing his best tennis, he still managed to retrieve everything and inevitably wear down his opponents.
Against Isotomin, Djokovic was simply the worse player. From ESPN:
“Istomin took the best shots Djokovic threw at him, especially in the fourth set, when Djokovic started blasting everything he had at him, trying to put his foot on the underdog’s neck to avoid a fifth set, only to have Istomin handle the barrage, the pressure, the nerves, the cramping in his legs from the third set on — all of that. Istomin was running down balls and smashing back winners of his own, many of them shots that hugged the side rails of the court and bounced just in beyond Djokovic’s reach.”
Afterwards, Djokovic couldn’t muster a response when asked what has changed recently.
“It’s not a time now to go deep into it,” he said.
Instead, he credited his opponent.
“All credit to Denis for playing amazing,” Djokovic said. “He deserved to win. He was the better player in the clutch moments. He stepped it up.”
“On any given day you can lose — nothing is impossible.”
At his best, a Djokovic loss often did feel impossible. Whatever the reason, he’s a different player now than he was when he won the French Open, and when he was the world No. 1. As these peculiar losses keep piling one, one has to wonder whether we will ever see Djokovic at the apogee of tennis again.
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