Novak Djokovic entered Wimbledon holding all four Grand Slam titles and 30 straight match wins at the majors – an Open Era men’s singles record. The Serbian had not lost a set – forget a match – during the first week of a Grand Slam since Wimbledon in 2014.
So while the best player in the world was down two sets to none – after a tight opening set, 28th-seeded American Sam Querrey stormed through five straight games to take the second – it never seemed like their third round encounter at Wimbledon was out of the 12-time Grand Slam champion’s grasp.
But indeed it was, as Querrey maintained his focus after dropping the third set and came back from a break down in the fourth to close out the biggest win of his career and arguably the biggest upset in tennis since Robin Soderling beat Rafael Nadal in the fourth round of the 2009 French Open. A looping Djokovic forehand that landed well wide ended his pursuit of the calendar-year Grand Slam and clinched the match for Querrey, 7-6 (6), 6-1, 3-6, 7-6 (5).
“I’m just so happy for Sam and Stevie,” coach Craig Boynton wrote in a text, also referencing a third round win by his other charge, Steve Johnson. “Both guys deserve this; they do all that I ask and are improving every day. And by the way, I’m so relieved Novak’s forehand was called out!”
For a while, that relief was far away as a Djokovic comeback seemed inevitable. Rain halted Querrey’s momentum at 8:02 p.m. on Friday evening following the end of the second set, giving Djokovic a chance to regroup overnight before the two stepped back on the court to start play again on Saturday.
“Sam had started Wimbledon with mental breakthrough, coming back from two sets to none, to beat a very good grass court player, Lukas Rosol,” USTA General Manager of Player Development Martin Blackman wrote in an email early Saturday morning. “Sure Sam will probably be nervous today at the beginning, but he knows he has beaten Djokovic before and he has the character that it takes to give 100 percent and let the chips fall where they may.”
Those chips fell early on when play resumed. Djokovic only took 17 minutes to grab a 4-0 third set lead that, after another rain stoppage, he would push to 5-0 before taking it 6-3. Then he had a break point in the first game of the fourth set to immediately move closer to exhaling a sigh of relief.
One would think that the best returner in tennis would jump all over the opportunity. But he did not.
Djokovic failed to convert on break point three times that game, then took a swipe at his chair with disgust at the change of ends. He was right there, right on the verge of hitting the accelerator and pulling even and then away from the American to whom Djokovic had only lost a combined 11 games in their last seven sets before this match.
So when Djokovic finally broke Querrey at 4-4 on his 12th opportunity of the set, it looked like Djokovic would surely send the contest to a fifth and deciding set. But in what felt like seconds, the momentum was back in Querrey’s corner as Djokovic could not handle a dipping forehand passing shot on the American’s second break point of the game. A quick hold later – and seemingly out of nowhere – Querrey was just a game away from winning.
And then came the raindrops, again.
Djokovic urgently waved coach Boris Becker and his team to meet him as the defending champion went back to the locker room before the match’s resumption. He had time for one last push to send the encounter to a fifth set, and once play got underway, that is where the match looked like it would go.
Serving down 5-6, Djokovic won six straight points to force a tiebreaker and then take a 2-0 lead. Querrey missed an overhead, backhand and later a forehand approach shot to hand momentum and a 3-1 edge to Djokovic. But the 41st-ranked player in the world did not miss a ball that he touched the rest of the way to earn his second victory in 10 tries against Djokovic and his fourth career top-five victory.
“If you’re playing somebody of as a high quality as Sam Querrey is on this surface with a big serve, anything can happen,” Djokovic said about his opponent, who hit 31 aces in the match, five of which came on break points in the fourth set. “Sometimes it works in your favor, sometimes against. You got to deal with that.”
While this match will go down as one of the greatest upsets ever, the loss was just that for Djokovic – a loss.
“It’s not the first time that I’m losing in a Grand Slam match, or any match for that matter,” Djokovic said. “I managed to win four Grand Slams in a row – two different seasons, though. I want to try to focus on that rather than on failure.”
The door is now open for other stars who Djokovic has kept away from major trophies to return to glory. Second-seeded Andy Murray will be the favorite to win his second Wimbledon crown, while 17-time Grand Slam winner Roger Federer has a chance to extend his major titles record to 18.
But people will remember today because of Djokovic. Everybody loses and there will never be an invulnerable tennis player, but perhaps what says the most about Djokovic is not that his Wimbledon loss came against Querrey, but that it came at all. There is no doubt that regardless of who wins the tournament, Djokovic will remain the best player in the world. It is just that today, anything short of him winning it all at the majors is just what he said he does not want to focus on – a failure.