Escape artist ends up on the canvas
If Novak Djokovic had a slogan, he would be 'the man who cheats death.' How many times have we seen him stand on the brink of defeat - or even go match point down - and yet still find a way to escape?
Yesterday, though, the magic ran out for Djokovic, who became the third superstar to leave this Australian Open in as many days when he lost in five sets (2-6 6-4 6-2 3-6 9-7) to Stan Wawrinka.
On the final point, Djokovic rolled the dice as so many times before, coming in behind his serve and reaching up to plant an easy forehand volley into the open court. But his timing deserted him and the ball sailed long and wide - an almost unthinkable aberration for a man with a reputation for delivering under pressure.
Up until this point, the tournament's biggest surprises had all come on the women's side, where Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova both tumbled out in the fourth round.
On the face of it, the fall of Djokovic is an even bigger shock, because of the stranglehold the 'big four' men have exerted. Djokovic has won this tournament for the past three years, and also held a 14-match winning run against Wawrinka, dating back to 2006.
Yet these two men played a pair of similarly intense five-setters in 2013, including a phenomenal battle at the Australian Open that was voted match of the year by their fellow professionals.
The frustration of those two near-misses clearly fuelled Wawrinka, and kept him going when he started cramping during the deciding set.
"I don't want to lose every time in five sets against Novak," said Wawrinka, who will now play Tomas Berdych in the semi-final. "I had to find a solution. That means being really aggressive, and serving better."
This mini-rivalry is turning into a real treat. The key is the contrast in styles. Wawrinka swings his racket with the uninhibited gusto of a man chasing a fly with a rolled-up newspaper. His strength is his flowing single-handed backhand, a shot of rare beauty.
When he plays Djokovic, probably the greatest defender tennis has seen, Wawrinka knows he has to keep powering the ball into the corners. It makes for wonderful entertainment. Djokovic was characteristically classy in the way he shrugged off any debate about the penultimate point of the match (a shanked service return by Wawrinka, which turned into a near-perfect drop-shot).
"I can say I was lucky with some shots last year in our match," Djokovic said. "This time it was him that had luck a little bit on 30-all, this mis-hit return, but this is sport. He showed his mental strength and he deserved to win."
You have to go back to 2010 for the last time that Djokovic was mortal. That was the year when he was diagnosed with a gluten allergy, gave up pizza, and finally started sustaining the quality of his tennis. A player who had previously been afflicted by breathing difficulties suddenly transformed himself into tennis' bionic man.
The 2010 French Open was the last time he failed to reach a grand slam semi-final. And his defeat against Tomas Berdych at the 2010 Wimbledon was the last time he lost to anyone outside the big four in a major tournament.
Will there be changes now that all these streaks have been broken? Perhaps, but then Djokovic only recently made a change, by bringing Boris Becker into his coaching set-up.
"I'm satisfied with things that we've been talking about, working on. It's the beginning of the season and we'll see what's coming next," Djokovic said of Becker's contribution.
One thing is for sure. Both men will be haunted by the spectre of that missed volley. (© Daily Telegraph, London)
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