The last time Mischa Zverev played Andy Murray, in 2015, the German was ranked 653rd in the world. Murray easily handled the left hander, 6-2, 6-2.
Less than two years later, the 50th-ranked Zverev attacked the net over and over again with success to produce by far the biggest win of his career, defeating the top seeded Murray in their fourth round encounter at the Australian Open on Sunday, 7-5, 5-7, 6-2, 6-4.
“I was like in a little coma, just serve and volleying my way through it,” Zverev said. “Honestly, there were a few points where I didn’t know how I pulled it off.”
If Zverev didn’t know how he pulled some points off, imagine the world’s reaction. But while Murray’s loss was shocking, what sent the strongest pulses through Melbourne was not that the Scot’s lost, but that defending champion Novak Djokovic (second round) and women’s world number one Angelique Kerber (fourth round) fell early, too.
What the hell has been going on in Melbourne? Something good for the sport. Something different.
On the men’s side, the sport’s two best players losing early left a gaping hole for one of three things to happen: One of two tennis legends will surge back to the top of the game for at least a tournament, a three-time major champion will take home his second Australian Open or another player who has been blockaded by those five players will break through that wall for the first time.
Guess what: none of those possibilities becoming a reality will surprise after this shocking opening week. That is exciting – nothing is more fun in sports than not knowing what will happen.
Four out of the last six Australian Opens ended in a Djokovic-Murray final. The Scot had only lost before the quarterfinals at a major once since 2011 before falling to Zverev and Djokovic, who had won the tournament in five of the previous six years, lost to 117th-ranked Denis Istomin in the second round – his first loss in the second round of a major since 2008.
This Australian Open was the first time that the top two men’s seeds at a Grand Slam lost before the quarterfinals since the 2004 French Open, when Roger Federer (third round) and Andy Roddick (second round) bowed out early.
Speaking of Federer, the 17-time Grand Slam champion will have a tremendous opportunity to reach another major semifinal as he faces Zverev next instead of Murray.
The 35-year-old did not play a tournament after Wimbledon last year to recover from injury, losing enough ranking points to be seeded 17th. He has already had to play two top 10 opponents, and most expected he would face Murray next.
“I couldn’t believe it, I would have never picked it,” Federer said of the Zverev upset. “I like Mischa a lot. He’s got a nice game coming forward.”
Federer shut down the end of 2016 to set himself up for moments like this – another chance at winning a major, with the sport’s two biggest obstacles out of the way.
“He’s not going to be defined by the number next to him,” 2003 U.S. Open champion Andy Roddick tells Rolling Stone about Federer’s 17th seed. “He’s going to be defined by current form and all he wants is that lightning in the bottle and if it could strike and get a major.”
A lightning bolt certainly struck in Melbourne. But Federer was not the only beneficiary. 14-time Grand Slam winner Rafael Nadal is also in the fray, surviving a comeback by sixth-seeded Gael Monfils in the fourth round. Either of the all-time greats winning another major would spice up tennis’ narrative.
Then you have Stan Wawrinka, who people always tend to forget about until he goes out and wins a big tournament – the Swiss has three major crowns. And then there is everyone else left in the draw. The “Big Five,” if you’d call Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, Murray and Wawrinka that, have won 45 of the last 47 Grand Slams.
Big-serving world number three Milos Raonic has gotten better and better, and this might be the best shot the Canadian and the rest of the field gets to win their first major in the near future, since Murray and Djokovic are gone.
On the women’s side, world number two Serena Williams is the best ever and is certainly the favorite. But her U.S. Open conqueror, fifth-seeded Karolina Pliskova, is playing great tennis and Britain’s Johanna Konta is in the form of her life. Even 36-year-old Venus Williams has a legitimate shot to make her first major final since 2009 based on her play in Melbourne.
The drama Down Under has been insane. And despite losing great players, the unknowns will make for an even more exciting close to one of the most surprising majors in recent memory.