King Novak dethroned by special display

By Dejan Kalinic at Melbourne Park 19 January 2017
King Novak dethroned by special display

That's what it took to dethrone the king of Melbourne Park.

For the first time since 2006 – his second appearance at the Australian Open – two-time defending champion Novak Djokovic failed to reach the third round.

Djokovic has owned the year's first grand slam. He won it five times in six years and was aiming for a record seventh title in 2017. It was always going to take something special to stop him. Many assumed only Andy Murray could manage it.

That he met his demise on a warm Rod Laver Arena on the first Thursday of the tournament, at the hands of an Uzbek world number 117, was a huge shock. Denis Istomin, here only after winning the Asia-Pacific wildcard play-off, delivered the performance of a lifetime.

It was somewhat reminiscent of last year's headline upset, when Fernando Verdasco dismissed Rafael Nadal in the first round. But Verdasco is a former world number seven, with incredible power. Istomin, coached by his mother, has never been beyond the fourth round of a major.

Istomin produced 63 winners, outlasting 12-time grand slam champion Djokovic in a gruelling match lasting almost five hours. The numbers fall short of telling the story of the 30-year-old's aggression. He went for his shots at will and executed repeatedly. He found lines so regularly that even the formidable defence of Djokovic was breached with alarming regularity. 

Istomin was almost apologetic to Djokovic in an on-court interview, such was his disbelief at his own performance. And he only just made it to Melbourne in the first place.

During his wildcard play-off semi-final, Istomin saved four match points – three with forehand winners – against India's Prajnesh Gunneswaran. He won 11-9 in the third set.

Djokovic was below his best, a surprise considering his Qatar Open title to start the year and straight-sets win over Verdasco. But even then, expectations were he would eventually find a way. Istomin would drop off. He did – his 27 winners in the opener were not matched again – but still he had enough in the tank. Istomin steadied in the fourth set and stepped up again in the fifth.

He broke in the fifth game of the final set in fitting fashion, letting rip with a backhand winner down the line. Surprisingly, he never gave Djokovic another chance.

It marked Djokovic's earliest grand slam exit since 2008, a run of 33 majors at which he had reached at least the last 32.

Ended, too, was a run of 15 consecutive wins at the Australian Open for the Serbian. It was just his fifth grand slam loss after leading two sets to one and first since 2010. It was only his eighth five-set loss at a major and it was his first grand slam defeat by a player ranked outside the top 100.

The king has been dethroned and the fight to seize his crown is heating up.

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