Wawrinka finally defeats Djokovic for signature victory
MELBOURNE, Australia -- The spoiler alert: Novak Djokovic will not win his fourth straight Australian Open title. After consecutive days of star-cleansing on the women's side -- first Serena Williams, then Maria Sharapova -- it was the men's turn on Tuesday night. In another spellbinding match, Switzerland's Stanislas Wawrinka took down the four-time champion 2-6, 6-4, 6-2, 3-6, 9-7.
Three quick thoughts on the second-ranked Djokovic's loss to No 8 Wawrinka:
• Wawrinka, 28, is a longtime top-20 habitue who has won five titles and nearly $10 million, and regularly ventures into the fourth round of Grand Slam tournaments. And yet this was, unquestionably, the signature win of his career. Twice in the last 52 weeks he battled Djokovic to five sets in majors with nothing to show for it but moral victories. Somewhere along the line -- inspired, one suspects, by Djokovic -- he tattooed his forearm with the words: "Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail Better."
Tuesday, he tried again and succeeded, playing dazzling tennis, zinging his picturesque one-handed backhand and serving with power and variety. Then he did what he couldn't in the past, and closed the deal. After getting broken early in the fifth set, he broke right back. In a four-hour staring contest, he got Djokovic to blink first.
At 8-7 in the fifth set, Wawrinka swung away and let Djokovic make two inexplicable errors. The victory breaks Djokovic's eight-year grip on their head-to-head matches, as the 26-year-old Serb had won the last 14 meetings. Wawrinka, who made it to his second straight Grand Slam semifinal, has effectively changed the narrative of the men's draw.
"I didn't want to let him win that one," Wawrinka said. "I got a little bit lucky in the last [game]. He missed easy shots. But, in general, in the fifth set I think I went for it."
• Before Tuesday, Djokovic had won each of his last 14 Grand Slam quarterfinal matches. He was the heavy favorite to win this title, coming into the quarterfinals on a 28-match winning streak dating to last fall (his last loss was in the 2013 U.S. Open final). His capacity for battle is beyond reproach.
And yet, without pushing panic buttons, this defeat continues a streak of mystifying results. He has now lost at seven of the last eight majors, often in a heartbreaking style. Reminiscent of the 2013 French Open semifinal in which he shanked a series of overheads and lost to Rafael Nadal in five sets, Djokovic was defeated in strange fashion on Tuesday. His return game -- usually a pillar of strength -- betrayed him for much of the match. He recovered in time to push the match to a fifth set, and then scored an early break. He promptly gave it right back and then, in the decisive game, missed two shots that a club player would make nine times out of 10.
"Only thing I can say is, 'Congratulations,' " Djokovic said gamely afterward. "I lost to a better player."
That's debatable. What isn't: Djokovic needs to clean up his game in the critical stages if he wants to add to his haul of Grand Slam titles.
• Suddenly, the men's draw is, if not wide open, up for grabs. The favorite is now out. Last year's finalist, Andy Murray, is returning from back surgery and dropped a set to a qualifier in the fourth round. Nadal has looked mortal. There's that "other" Swiss guy, but can he replicate the high level of play he summoned in his previous match?
It's been nearly five years since a player outside the Big Four has won a Grand Slam title. We already know that one of the "others" will get a shot in the final, the winner of Wawrinka and Tomas Berdych, who showed real resolve in beating David Ferrer earlier Tuesday. Is this the event that we will see a first-time winner? It's beginning to feel like it.