And just like that, six-time champion Novak Djokovic is out of the Australian Open.
I turned on the match midway through the second set, with Denis Istomin holding a 4-3 lead and Djokovic serving. At that point, Novak was down a set, and Istomin was fighting him toe-to-toe. After one of Istomin's shots was called out, giving Novak the game, Istomin took a long look at the spot where the ball had landed. "You think this is clay?" Novak shouted petulantly. This is not the invincible Novak of 2015 and the first half of 2016, I thought.
At 4-5, Novak fell behind 15-30, and then double-faulted to give Istomin two set points. Novak at his best always found a way out of this sort of problem, and here he did it yet again. A forehand winner erased the first set point, an ace the second. Two points later and the score was 5-5. In the next game, Novak quickly went up 0-40. Istomin saved two break points, but a Djokovic backhand winner sealed the break. At that point, Djokovic seemed to have reestablished the imperiousness we've come to expect from him. He won his next service game at love and, with it, the set.
It was now almost 11pm my time, and I have grown so accustomed to Novak erasing his opponents when he hits his stride that I went to bed. (The Australian is a tough tournament for U.S. fans to watch. Most of it happens during our late night/early morning.) I figured Novak would win the next couple of sets comfortably, in the typical Novak way.
His loss was so unexpected that initially, when I saw the score, I read it the other way: Novak in five. But no: Djokovic comfortably won the third, but Istomin took the fourth in a tie-breaker and won the fifth 6-4.
So this morning, I watched the second half of the fifth set, wondering if I could figure out what's happened to the Novak I knew. There's nothing clearly wrong with his game, it's just that it's not right. There's an indifference to his play, a distance from the experience, as though he doesn't particularly care. And that's the kind of sentence you write and then immediately question. Like, "Wait, can that be? Novak Djokovic doesn't care?" Because during his period of invincibility, Novak was the personification of will-made-manifest. He seemed almost trans-human, his play fueled by human desire shorn of all human weakness. There's a reason "machine-like" was the adjective so frequently used to describe him during this period.
After his victory at the Australian Open last year (which featured, you might remember, a somehow-he-found-a-way-to-win-despite-100-unforced-errors fourth-round victory against Gilles Simon), I wrote this:
It’s well known that Djokovic wants more than anything to complete his career Grand Slam by finally winning the French Open. I wonder: if he wins there, does the need for a little mental relief, plus the signs we saw here that his attention is flagging, mean that he can’t quite be at 100% at Wimbledon a month later? At the Olympics, a month after that? At the U.S. Open just a few weeks later still? As great as he clearly is, there comes a point when he simply has to let down. It will be fascinating to see when that happens.
That he made the finals of the US Open obscured just how indifferent his form since he won the French has really been. A third-round four-set loss against Sam Querrey at Wimbledon. A second-round exit at the Olympics. A semi-final loss in the Shanghai Masters, and a quarterfinal exit from the Paris Master. One wonders, now, if his appearance in the U.S. Open final should carry an asterisk. Consider these matches on his path to the final: a second-round walkover; a third-round retirement after only six games; a quarterfinal retirement (by Tsonga) after two sets; and the strange semi-final against Gael Monfils, whose play in that match John McEnroe described as "disgraceful." (In the press conference afterwards, Monfils defended his play by saying that he simply can't beat Djokovic when they play straight up. To which I would point out that you certainly will never beat any player you don't believe you can beat.) Which means that, of the seven rounds at the US Open, Djokovic only played three matches against players even modestly equipped to beat him--and one of those he lost.
We all thought he was back after his epic win against Murray a couple of weeks ago in the final of the Qatar Open. But after his display yesterday, it seems he's still failed to regain his form. How long will it be, and what will it take, for him to find it again?