For the past three years, Novak Djokovic has been the king of Australia, dominating Down Under like very few men before him.
That reign, however, ended in stunning fashion on Tuesday. With it went any remaining semblance of the Serbian’s invincibility against players not named Rafael Nadal.
In a surprising setback, the defending champion fell to Stanislas Wawrinka in a five-set quarterfinal thriller at the 2014 Australian Open, denying Djokovic a chance at a four-peat and raising reasonable questions as to his vulnerability late in Grand Slams.
Djokovic has now lost in the quarterfinals or later in four straight majors, including twice to players ranked and seeded beneath him. The 2-6, 6-4, 6-2, 3-6, 9-7 loss to Wawrinka is especially curious considering Djokovic was riding a 28-match win streak and had beaten the No. 8-seeded Wawrinka in each of their previous 14 meetings.
Crazy stat of the day: Novak Djokovic had won 25 consecutive matches at the Australian Open before losing this morning.— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) January 21, 2014
Yet, on Tuesday, it was Wawrinka who made all the key shots on the decisive points late in the match, ultimately breaking the world’s second-ranked player to claim the career-defining victory.
The triumph reverses five-set losses to Djokovic in the fourth round of last year’s Australian Open as well as the semifinals of the U.S. Open six months ago; it also represents the first time in 15 majors that the Serbian has failed to reach at least the semifinals.
Following the match, Djokovic spoke frankly, per Piers Newbery of BBC Sport:
You know, I gave it my best. I gave it all. I tried to come out as the winner. I tried to fight until the last point as I did in a very similar match we did last year in the fourth round, same court, but it wasn't to be this time.
Not only was it not meant to be, but the performance leaves the four-time Australian champion with another disappointing end to a Grand Slam title run after being considered a favorite at the start.
Djokovic lost to Nadal in the semifinals of the French Open and in the final of the U.S. Open last year, setbacks that were sandwiched around a loss to Andy Murray in the final at Wimbledon.
While he deserves credit for those deep Grand Slam runs, and undoubtedly remains the game’s second-best player, the intimidation he once held over the sport’s top men outside of Nadal has to be considered a thing of the past. The same can also be said of any claim Djokovic would like to make on the title as best player in the world.
It doesn't mean he’s done winning Grand Slams; he is not. It does, however, signal that claiming those prized titles is going to get tougher and tougher, and it certainly isn’t just Nadal who stands in his way anymore.
Last year’s five-set loss to Rafa in the French Open semifinals is understandable given the world No. 1’s dominance at Roland Garros. The setback to Murray at Wimbledon and the subsequent loss to Nadal at the U.S. Open, however, are lost opportunities the Serbian undoubtedly would like back.
The same can certainly be said of his quarterfinal loss to Wawrinka in which he won the first set only to drop the next two inexplicably. As he always seemed to in the past, Djokovic recovered to win the fourth set and seemed poised to deliver another five-set disappointment to his determined rival before the exact opposite happened.
Australian Open - Stanislas Wawrinka finally gets his marathon moment against Novak Djokovic http://t.co/ms8dj8b4RQ— ESPNTennis (@ESPNTennis) January 21, 2014
This time, Wawrinka was the man with the big shots and the good fortune that would carry the night. He didn't fade in the shadow of Djokovic on the other side of the court, but rather excelled beyond it.
That rather stark reversal of fortune once again put Djokovic in a position he must be growing uncomfortably accustomed to: that of the gracious Grand Slam loser.
"He deserved this win," Djokovic said, per Newbery. "I congratulate him absolutely. There is nothing I can say."
It’s an admirable reaction to what must be a disconcerting loss for the six-time Grand Slam champion, who leaves Australia not only without a trophy for the first time since 2010, but also lacking the aura of invincibility he worked so hard to build over the years Down Under.