Serbia's Novak Djokovic greets audience after the men's singles second round match against Uzbekistan's Denis Istomin at the Australian Open Tennis Championships in Melbourne, Australia, Jan. 19, 2017. Djokovic lost 2-3. (Xinhua/Lui Siu Wai)
Waking up on Thursday morning, Novak Djokovic wouldn't have thought he'd be packing his bags, heading home in defeat from the Australian Open after winning the title six times.
Former world top 40 player Denis Istomin - who won the Asian wild card playoff to qualify for the Australian Open -- however had either ideas, playing the match of his life to defeat the Serbian world No. 2 7-6 (8), 5-7, 2-6, 7-6 (5), 6-4 in four hours and 50 minutes, to the roar of an Australian crowd.
"It's unreal. To beat Novak in five sets, its's a great win," Istomin told reporters after the match, adding it was only after he won, the feeling that he could actually do it came.
"It means so much for me, of course, to beat the world No. 2. I just hope (it's) not only (the) one victory of mine. I'm trying to keep going (the) same way and trying to win some more.
The 30-year-old Uzbekistani took the first set in a drawn out tiebreaker with a blistering forehand before holding two set points over the defending Australian Open champion in the second, though Djokovic reversed the momentum to square the match.
Djokovic responded to the pressure to take the third in convincing style, but was again pressured in the fourth, suffering an early break of serve.
"The first couple of games of the fourth set, that's where it turned around. That's where I had to use my chances, step it up, (but) I didn't," Djokovic told reporters.
"He started playing better from that point on, he just started swinging through and getting more confidence. Then it was really a gamble."
Istomin, a former world No. 33 but now ranked 112th, let his advantage slip after losing serve at 4-3. But in a repeat of the second, he again made Djkovic defend set point at 5-4.
The Serbian managed to save the point with a soft backhand winner again, however at the ensuing tie break Istomin had the upper hand early following two mini breaks, sending the match to a fifth with the roar of an Australian crowd.
"Maybe late in the fourth set something could have happened, but I didn't really have a clear chance to be honest," Djokovic said.
"Whenever he needed, he came up with a big serve, a big play. All I can say is hands down."
The fifth started as a clinical affair for the pair before Istomin forced Djokovic into a series of errors to get a crucial break at 3-2, showing his elation with a rapturous roar, joined by a supportive Australian crowd. Djokovic managed to hold serve to close the gap however the Australian crowd lifted the roof when Istomin came to serve for the match.
The pair had met on five previous occasions, with Djokovic only dropping one set. It would have been a crazy thought to think he would have ever beaten the Serbian star at the beginning of the year, especially over five sets, Istomin said in response to the suggestion.
"For me, (it) was impossible to think about that I can hold it five sets with Novak, physically and mentally," Istomin said.
"So I did well today."
Djokovic agreed, saying it is amazing Istomin was playing that well, thus you've "got to give him credit for that."
"No doubt, he was a better player in the clutch moments, he stepped it up, played aggressive, served very well, very precise, there's not much I could do," Djokovic said.
"Of course, I was not pleased with my performance overall, but I have to congratulate (Istomin) today."
It's Djokovic's worst performance at a major since a stunning stunning third round loss to Sam Querry at last year's Wimbledon, and a sour start to a grand slam career without longtime coach Boris Becker. The pair split at the end of the 2016 season.