Losing that invincible aura

Losing that invincible aura

Tennis : Novak Djokovic, the king of the court not too long ago, has struggled to achieve that pressure-proof level in recent months

Losing that invincible aura

It was certainly possible to see trouble ahead for Novak Djokovic based on all the dents in his armor from 2016. But it would have taken a creative mind to see the latest knockout blow coming from 117th-ranked Denis Istomin of Uzbekistan in the second round of the Australian Open.

When Istomin was asked how he would have responded if someone suggested such a thing a couple of weeks ago, he answered, “I would have said, ‘Are you crazy, or what?'”

But tennis is a game of centimetres and if you have doubts, consider that Istomin, 30, who is coached by his mother, very nearly did not make it here at all. His career was nearly derailed by a car accident in his teenage years, and he earned his wild card in the main draw in Melbourne this year only after saving four match points in the semifinals of the Asia-Pacific wild-card playoff in December. Tennis is a game of confidence, too, and the second-seeded Djokovic, despite hints to the contrary as he won his first tournament of the year, is clearly not the same suffocating, pressure-proof force of personality that he has been at other triumphant phases of his career.

“I didn’t recognise him, his mentality,” his former coach Boris Becker said.
Istomin became the latest big-hitting veteran to reap the benefits, although he still had to come up with what looked like the match of his life to manage it. It could not have hurt to know that other unlikely figures — like the American Sam Querrey, in the third round at Wimbledon last year — had done the same under pressure against Djokovic recently.

Still, this was Djokovic’s earliest defeat at a Grand Slam tournament since he lost to Marat Safin in the second round of Wimbledon in 2008. It was his earliest loss in Melbourne since a first-round defeat in 2006, at age 18. Laver Arena has been Djokovic Arena, too. He has won six of his 12 major singles titles here, and he was the two-time defending champion. But he has now left a mark of another sort by being on the bitter end of one of the Australian Open’s biggest upsets.

It was the latest blow to Djokovic’s battered aura of invincibility. Last June, after winning the French Open for the first time, Djokovic held all four Grand Slam singles titles. But he has not won a major since and has surrendered the No 1 ranking to Andy Murray, who lost to Djokovic two weeks ago in the final in Doha, Qatar, but is now a solid favorite to win his first Australian Open. In the bottom half of the draw, where Djokovic no longer prowls, opportunity knocks and may not have to knock for long.

“It’s a big door open now,” Becker said. “We talked about the next gen for a long time, and now is the time for these 19-, 20-, 21-year-olds to go through the door. When the top dog is struggling a bit — and no disrespect to Andy, but Novak was the top dog — the way was blocked. But now it’s a shift.”

Becker split with Djokovic at the end of last year and is in Melbourne doing commentary for German Eurosport. He said one of the main reasons he decided to leave Djokovic’s team was because he felt the Serb was no longer making tennis as high a priority. Becker declined to comment on whether the increasingly public role taken on by Pepe Imaz, a former Spanish touring pro who has become Djokovic’s spiritual adviser, was a factor. (Imaz is not in Melbourne.) Djokovic also made cryptic references to “private issues” at the US Open last fall.

“Obviously  the second half of last year, there was a different priority,” Becker said. “Novak was the first one to admit that, and I think that was the main reason for me to stop this because I thought my job isn’t that important anymore obviously. Having watched the match, I felt he tried and he played five sets and 4-1/2 hours, but I didn’t see the intensity, didn’t see the absolute will to win, didn’t see him mentally going crazy.

“He always was very nonchalant about it, and that is not the Novak that I know. I’d rather see him break a racket or pull the shirt or something, for him to get emotional. I thought it was very even keel the whole match through, and that was unusual, and I don’t know what to make of that.”

Still, Becker — like everyone else — was surprised to see him lose. After watching Djokovic have to save five match points to beat Fernando Verdasco in the semifinals in Doha, he was concerned. But when he watched the victory against Murray in the Doha final, Becker said he felt confident that Djokovic would use that win as a springboard. Instead, he ended up finishing with a belly flop after 4 hours 48 minutes of suspense.

“No shame in losing,” Becker said. “You play against Murray, Nadal or Wawrinka in the final of the Open, you can lose to those guys. Even Novak playing good can lose. But not against Denis Istomin. Novak wasn’t injured, apparently. He was two-sets-to-one up. That is unusual and doesn’t fit into the picture I have of him.”
Djokovic still might have wriggled free, but he seems to have lost, for now, the ability to slam the accelerator pedal to the floor and get across the finish line when an opening presents itself.

“He played very conservative,” Becker said. “He didn’t take any chances at all and he ran a lot and he fought and everything, but always sort of with the hand brake on.”

Djokovic at his peak was, and may again be, a demoralisingly complete threat. But he is closer to the valley at this stage, and there are many talented men scrambling to reach the sunlit uplands. “I hope Novak goes back to the drawing board and remembers what made him good in the first place,” Becker said. “That’s really the key, to face the situation and be honest with yourself. If he does that, he knows what to do. If that’s his main priority, then he will do what is necessary to find the winning ways again.”