MELBOURNE • Fallen Grand Slam king Novak Djokovic admitted that opponents now believe he is more vulnerable, following his stunning second-round exit from the Australian Open yesterday.
The 12-time Grand Slam champion crashed out to 117th-ranked Denis Istomin in five sets in the world No. 2's earliest exit from a Major since Wimbledon 2008, when he was beaten by Marat Safin in the second round.
It was the first time in seven years the Serb had even dropped a set in the first week in Melbourne.
He had also lost only once to a player ranked outside the top 100 during the same period, falling to world No. 145 Juan Martin del Potro at the Rio Olympics last year.
The 7-6 (10-8), 5-7, 2-6, 7-6 (7-5), 6-4 loss to Istomin will only raise more questions about Djokovic's ability to stay at the top after dominating tennis for the last six years.
Asked if opponents have started increasingly to believe that he was beatable, Djokovic said: "Sure. They wouldn't be playing against me or any other opponent or any other tournament, for that matter, if they don't believe that they can win.
"They go out and they try their best. Today Denis, surely he was an underdog, but he didn't show any nerves in the big moments.
"Everything came together. It was the right moment for him, the right day. He was better."
Melbourne Park Snippets
STAT OF THE DAY
The only time the 30-year-old Denis Istomin won an ATP Tour title - the Nottingham Open - since turning pro in 2004.
Djokovic's stunning defeat ends a phenomenal run of success in Melbourne where he won six Australian Open titles in six finals.
"We played 41/2 hours. It's just that, you know, it's one of these days when you don't feel that great on the court, don't have much rhythm, and the player you're playing against is feeling the ball very well," he said.
LOSING THE AURA OF DOMINANCE
I sat next to Toni Nadal and (Gunther) Bresnik. We were all bewildered at how absent Novak was.
BORIS BECKER, former world No. 1 who ended a three-year coaching relationship with Djokovic last month, on the Serb's dismal performance.
NO EASY PATH BACK TO THE TOP
(Thursday's defeat) just shows that Novak has absolutely lost his edge, there's no doubt about that. I'd love to see him competing, to be a true No. 2 fighting for that No. 1 spot, but at this rate I don't think we will see that."
PAT CASH, former Australian tennis player, dismissing the possibility of Djokovic regaining his world No. 1 spot.
"I'm not used to losing in the Australian Open second round. Of course, it's disappointing. But at the end of the day I have to accept it."
Djokovic also denied there was any hangover lingering from his breakthrough French Open victory at Roland Garros last June, and the downturn that followed.
He relinquished his Wimbledon and US Open titles and was eliminated in the first round of the Rio Olympics by eventual champion del Potro of Argentina.
"I don't know. I didn't reflect on that at all. I started a new season, a new year, as everybody else. I forgot about it, in a way. It's not affecting me," he added.
"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."
In contrast, the 30-year-old from Uzbekistan had taken only a single set off Djokovic in five previous meetings.
Yesterday, he produced some of the tennis of his life before saying: "First of all I feel sorry for Novak. I was playing so good today. I mean, I surprised myself also today. I want to thank my team who do a good job and my mum."
Istomin, whose mother Klaudiya Istomina is also his coach, said: "Amazing. So much emotion on my mind so I cannot hold it but I want to say thanks very much for coming to support me.
"It is unreal. It means so much for me, of course, to beat the world No. 2. I just hope it's not only one victory of mine. I'm trying to keep going same way and trying to win some more."
Istomin, who only got into the main draw as the winner of the Asia wildcard play-off, will now play Spanish 30th seed Pablo Carreno Busta in the third round.
He also joked that he saves money by having his mother as his travelling coach, saying: "I don't need to pay the coach extra, you know."
And what did his mother say to him after the match?
"She said, 'Good job'," he smiled.
"I'm not a superstar in Uzbekistan," he admitted. "I've been living in Moscow for 10 years so I don't go too much to Uzbekistan.
"But of course, if I play in Uzbekistan, everybody knows me."
Djokovic gave short shrift to a query about his playing schedule.
"At the moment I just want to go home, spend time with my family, and that's all," he said.
THE GUARDIAN, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS
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