Thursday 24 May 2018

Shock defeat exposes Djokovic mental state

Novak Djokovic all alone with his thoughts in Melbourne. Photo: Getty Images
Novak Djokovic all alone with his thoughts in Melbourne. Photo: Getty Images

Simon Briggs

Melbourne without Novak Djokovic feels like India without the Taj Mahal.

He has been a fixture here for a decade, the greatest champion this event has ever seen, but Djokovic suffered a five-set defeat yesterday to the unheralded Denis Istomin, of Uzbekistan, in a result that will be remembered as one of the shocks of the century.

Asked what he would take from the match, the wild card replied: "I'll take my bags, and I'll go home."

Djokovic's defeat threw the betting markets into upheaval and left the men's draw looking as open as any Australian Open since 2002 - the topsy-turvy year when Sweden's Thomas Johannson beat Marat Safin in the final.

It also wiped 1,955 rankings points off Djokovic's tally, making Andy Murray's status as world No 1 all but certain until the summer. The real question, though, must surround Djokovic's state of mind.

Yes, Istomin played stupendously well in winning 7-6, 5-7, 2-6, 7-6, 6-4, held his nerve with great aplomb and struck fizzing winners when he most needed them. But he was given the time and space to swing those haymakers.

"When you see someone play as well as Istomin did, it's usually because their opponent has invited them to deliver their best stuff," said Craig O'Shannessy, lead analyst for the men's tour.

"When Novak was playing his best, he shut you down, hit the lines, hugged the baseline. There was no space to work in. Now he's just backed off a tiny bit and he is creating the conditions for the other guy to prosper."

This verdict was echoed by Boris Becker, who finished a three-year stint as Djokovic's coach in the off-season and was commentating here yesterday for Eurosport.

"I'm still a bit shocked and I have to digest what I've seen," he said. "I'm still feeling like 'Team Djokovic'. I didn't expect that. Novak played far too defensive and passive. He didn't take action. He fought, but Istomin kept playing aggressive, courageous, especially with the serve. He deserved to win."

Those close to the Djokovic camp suggest that some of last year's personal issues have been resolved, putting his domestic life back on a more even keel. But the question of motivation remains. Is it as strong as it was before last summer, when he lifted the Coupe des Mousquetaires in Paris to complete the career grand slam?

Recent days certainly suggest otherwise. Djokovic looked like he had turned a corner when he won the Qatar ExxonMobil Open in Doha almost a fortnight ago, beating Murray in a high-quality final. But he did not fly on to Melbourne until the Wednesday before this event, making a last-minute decision to squeeze in more family time.

On arrival, he went straight into a charity event - 'A Night with Novak' - designed to raise funds for his foundation, run by wife Jelena.

Given the sense of ennui that Djokovic is now radiating, there might be a case for him to consider a complete break from the game. Take a few weeks off, as Serena Williams used to do in the mid-2000s whenever she felt burnt out. Rediscover his hunger and come back only when the appetite for training and competing is raging inside him once again.

Djokovic is not someone who can blow his opponents off the court in the manner of a Pete Sampras or a Roger Federer. He has to outwork them and outfight them, and you cannot do that without a burning desire to succeed.

His power-fade - whether temporary or permanent - was predicted a year ago by several tennis legends who have held the world No 1 ranking.

"What Novak is doing is just amazing, but it's not easy to stay at that high level," said Rafael Nadal, who should know.


Of course, this story was not only about one man. Istomin maintained an exalted level of play for four hours and 48 minutes, belying his lowly ranking of No 117.

Asked whether he would have believed such a result was possible, he replied: "Are you crazy? For me, it was impossible to think that I can hold it for five sets with Novak, physically and mentally."

Istomin was born in Orenburg, Russia, 30 years ago. At the age of 14, he was involved in a serious car crash that left him with 80 stitches, cost him three months in hospital, and prevented him from playing tennis for two years.

"It was bad accident. But my mother... she was always believing in me. She always saying, 'Just keep going and just practising'," he revealed."

Istomin's mother, Klaudiya, is also his coach. They have worked together throughout his career except for a period when she had another son - a brother 14 years younger than Istomin - and spent a couple of years at home.

Apart from his 125mph serve, the most striking thing about Istomin is his canary-yellow glasses.

"I cannot play with (contact) lenses because it bothers me," he said. "I have a problem with one eye. It is not really good. When I ask referee if I can check the mark, I cannot see so far."

Australian Open,

Live, Eurosport 1, 6.0am/12.0am

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