Australian Open Djokovic Murray Defeats 1st Time Since RG 2004 Top Seeds Out Before QFs

Dkokovic Istomin

Photo courtesy of WKBT News8000.com

Novak Djokovic’s five set defeat to wild card Denis Istomin and Andy Murray’s four set upset at the fine hands of Mischa Zverev will go down as two of the biggest upsets in tennis for a decade, the first time since Roland Garros 2004 the top two seeds had both been upset before the last sixteen of a slam was over, and there are many good reasons why we never saw either of them coming. The Tennis Review looks back at what made the losses such a shock and how, with the benefit of hindsight, they both made perfect sense.

Djokovic had just beaten Andy Murray in Doha and looked good in his first round win over Fernando Verdasco and Murray was the top seed who, after Djokovic’s defeat, looked to have his best chance ever to win the title.

Since winning Roland Garros, Djokovic’s falling out of love with tennis has been well documented. After managing a feat  not even Sampras, Federer or Nadal could achieve- winning all four slams in a row, the mental toll on the Serb was all too obvious in his third round Wimbledon loss to Sam Querrey.

Djokovic did win in Toronto, but he suffered an emotional defeat to Juan Martin del Potro in the first round of the Olympics, and at the US Open an injured Djokovic, helped along by walkovers, made the final where he was dismissed in four sets by Stan Wawrinka.

In his typically best part of the season, Djokovic then lost for the first time to Bautista Agut (Shanghai semis) and Cilic (Paris-Bercy Quarters) and though he won four matches at the WTF, he under-performed in the final, losing the match and his chance of ending the season ranked No.1 to Andy Murray.

That up and down last half of the season made his Doha win over Murray at the beginning of this one a victory to fill both him and his fans with confidence along with talk he was enjoying tennis again doing the rounds. That optimism was strengthened when Djokovic handled Verdasco, who had held match points against the Serb in Doha, in straight sets in his Melbourne Park opener, and his journey to the final and the title, in the bookmaker’s and many pundits eyes looked very likely.

In the final, Djokovic was supposed to face Murray for what would have been their fifth contest on Rod Laver since 2011. Murray was a strong bet to make his sixth final in Melbourne- he had put up a big fight in the Doha final and had not dropped a set to Illya Marchenko, Andrey Rublev, and Sam Querrey.

Once Djokovic was knocked out, Murray was, for the second time, the first being Wimbledon 2016, the favorite to win a slam, and with his record at the open and the consistency he had displayed the past year, his march to the title looked a safe bet, and Mischa Zverev, like Istomin had been with Djokovic, was one of the last name’s on people’s lists to stop Murray finally realizing his Melbourne Park dreams.

Denis Istomin was a wild card who had been a point away from being knocked out of the Wildcard qualifying event while Mischa Zverev, ranked 50, has the serve and volley game Murray has usually proven to be a master at destructing.

While Djokovic may have been looking good, Istomin had been struggling. He lost in a Bangkok challenger to Christian Garin, ranked 211, in the fourth round (Garin is, though, the 2013 Roland Garros Junior champ, beating Sascha Zverev in the final, so he is something of a big prospectand he had not beaten anyone in the top 100 before his first round Australian Open win over Ivan Dodig since beating that same player back in late October.

Istomin did have a good run at Wimbledon ’16, however, beating Anderson and Amalgro before losing to Goffin in four.

Istomin is anything but an unknown quantity, reaching a career high of 33 (2012.08.13). He had been to the third round of the Australian Open in 2014, losing in straights to Djokovic, as well as the last 16 of the US Open (2013, lost to Murray), the last sixteen of Wimbledon (2012, lost to Youzhny), and made three other trips to Grand Slam third rounds.

A tendency to over-hit rather than patiently constructing points and then unleashing had gotten in Istomin’s way of reaching his potential. The Uzbek 30 year old put that right against Djokovic this year in Melbourne Park, however, when he patiently set up his big shots and remained unflustered in the face of causing one of the big upsets of the last decade.

The Uzbek said himself, when asked at the end of the match how he felt that he felt sorry for Djokovic, after all, on the day, he was just too good.

Zverev played out and out serve and volley tennis in his win over Murray, a style the Scot is very adept with his big return and passing shots at defeating. The German, much like Murray, had been gathering his own momentum since the Summer of 2016, qualifying for the US Open and reaching the last 64, qualifying and reaching the last eight of Shenzen and Shanghai (where he won a set off Djokovic) and beating Stan Wawrinka in the last eight of Basel before losing to the eventual champion Marin Cilic in three sets so that serve and volley style had had plenty of practice and Zverev had gotten used to winning.

Murray could not find an answer to Zverev’s awkward groundstrokes and attacking approach – Zverev came in 118 times- and the Scot did not take his chances, failing to consolidate his breaks in set one and managing to win just 35% points on his second serve, perhaps what hurt him the most.

Djokovic’s road to slams are usually filled with roadblocks but he typically overcomes them while Murray may be more susceptible to upsets but not in Melbourne. 

Djokovic struggling in the early rounds of a slam is not unusual. As Djokovic himself said after the match everyone is dangerous (use exact quote) and he has been, in the last year, bothered by Simon (Australian Open ’16 last sixteen), Bautista Agut (Roland Garros last 16) and was actually not just bothered but actually upset by Querrey at Wimbledon, and it is most likely, if he had not been on the receiving end of so many walkovers and retirements at the US Open, he would have been more than bothered there.

Part of what makes Djokovic such a great champion is his ability to get out of those matches, pacing himself at a slam so that he peaks at the right moments, no moment better than the finals. He was not able to do that, however, versus Istomin, and in Melbourne, since 2011, only Stan Wawrinka has been better than the six time champion, leaving Istomin in pretty elite company.

Murray has experienced someone being better than him plenty of times since 2011 in Melbourne, and four of those times it has been Djokovic (Federer in 2014), but when Murray does play someone better than him in a slam, is it usually late in the day, when most of all rivals have already been put to bed. Murray may not have been as prolific at slams as Djokovic has, winning three slams to Djokovic’s 12, but he has made plenty of finals, 11 of them, and he has been to the semis 20 times, the quarters 27 times since Wimbledon 2008 so to lose in the fourth round at the Australian Open as the top seed is a big dent in his record.

Big Upsets in slams do not happen like they used to.

There have been notable upsets in slams the last decade- Nadal losing to Robin Soderling at Roland Garros ’09 and Rosol at Wimbledon ’12, Federer losing to Stakhovsky at Wimbledon ’13- but with the top players mastering games which allow them to dominate across more homogenized surfaces, and with seedings being bolstered from 16 to 32, the top seeds have been more protected in the earlier rounds of slams than previous top seeds were. (Sampras was often upset at the French Open and even at the US Open and Australian Opens in his prime as was Becker, Edberg and Agassi).

Djokovic, the houdine of upset escapes, finally fell to one of his rival’s better form. Djokovic’s words themselves sum up why he lost the best:

it’s a tennis match. On a given day, you can lose. I mean, nothing is impossible. There is over a hundred players playing in the main draw. I guess the quality of tennis keeps rising each year. Everybody becomes more professional. I guess they improve. They get better on the court.

What can I do? I did try my best till the last shot, but it didn’t work.

We have to go all the way back to Roland Garros 2004 when Roger Federer and Andy Roddick, the top two seeds, went out in the third and second rounds respectively (Federer lost to Gustavo Kuerten, Roddick to Olivier Mutis after leading two sets to one).

Those losses were easier to understand- Kuerten was a three time Roland Garros champ and Federer was an attacking player back then while Roddick never achieved great success on clay. These losses Down Under are more difficult to get our heads round- Djokovic and Murray have, one or the other or both, featured in every Australian Open final except 2009 and 2014 since Djokovic first took the trophy in 2008.

The conditions at this year’s Australian Open were prime for upsets, however, the tournament playing like a different event, with many reports that the surface itself was faster and faster balls which fluffed up less than usual in play.  The scheduling did not help either- Djokovic is more likely to be upset in a match scheduled on a hot day and both Istomin and Zverev have games which are most dangerous on fast surfaces, and with the balls used at this year’s Open faster than in previous ones, Djokovic and Murray were at risk. Murray himself said:

I think the temperatures make it faster, definitely when it’s that hot. When I played Sam the other day, it’s 20 degrees and cool, that slows things down. Definitely it’s a bit faster.

Murray himself likes fast conditions, and he took advantage of them, hitting 72 winners, and not playing a bad match- his opponent, though, also likes it fast, and played a great match:

he came up with some great pickups, you know, reflex volleys especially at the end of the match when it was tight. That was tough because I was hitting some good shots, chasing some good balls down.

Intriguingly, it was two experienced journeymen, both Istomin and Zverve are aged 30 and 29 respectively, who picked them off and not young guns feeding off the faster pace. Most likely it is Istomin’s and Zverev’s experience which helped them to be mentally tougher than their far more high achieving opponents. Going into the Open, Istomin had played 402 pro matches, Zverev 207, and with all the fighting through injuries and comebacks that both have done, they were up for a fight against two of the best scrappers in the game.

Two Big Questions: Is Djokovic declining and Will Andy Murray ever get as good a chance to win the Australian Open again?

Djokovic has gone from holding all four slams at once, the first man to do so since 1969, to a Win-third round-Runner-up-second round record in his last four slams, and in the last six months, the world No.2 has won just two titles- compare that to he same six month period the previous year he won seven titles, so his career is definitely in a slump of sorts, but a permanent decline is questionable.

Only 12 men have won slams after turning 30 in the open era and so Djokovic, who turns 30 on May 22, when Roland Garros starts, still has a slam or two left in him, but he is unlikely, if history is anything to go by,  dominate like he had been doing since late 2014.

Murray, who also turns 30 going into the French Open (May 15) came into this Australian Open with the momentum of being world No.1 with seven tournaments won since Wimbledon, and after Djokovic’s defeat he had a great chance, on paper anyway, to win his first title and get a step closer to a career grand slam.

Next year, Murray will be 30 in Melbourne and his chances of winning there will be less, but Andre Agassi won the Australian Open twice, at 30 years and 8 months and 32 years and 8 months, and like Murray his athleticism helped him in the brutal Melbourne conditions. Agassi had a second wind in his late 20s and 30s, much like Murray has since rebounding from back surgery in 2013, but Agassi had also much more time out from the game than Murray, and was also a more accomplished player, one who could revert back to a champion’s mentality built up over eleven years from his first slam win to his last while Murray has only been winning slams for four years. Murray, though, is the reigning Wimbledon champion, the world No.1 and a five time Australian Open finalist so once Djokovic was out, he was, on paper, the heir apparent.

Tennis is, however, not played on paper, and as both Djokovic and Murray were keen to remind us in their interviews, tennis is sport and the better player wins on the day. That player is usually one of them,though, and will be again, but how often and where and when is up in the air, and for any sport’s health, that is a great place for things to be.

 

 

 

 

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Christian Deverille

Christian Deverille is a tennis writer with a diploma in Freelance Sports Writing from the London School of Journalism. He loves all things tennis, most of all the Federer and del Potro forehands.
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