Novak Djokovic was dumped out of his home tournament by Aslan Karatsev in a thrilling semi-final in Belgrade.
The 18-time Grand Slam champion was firm favourite to win the Serbia Open tournament heading into the week, with the country’s capital hosting the men’s event for the first time in nine years.
Karatsev took the first set 7-5 and after Djokovic recovered to take the match to a decider, the Russian held his nerve to clinch the third set 6-4 having saved a remarkable 23 points out of 28 against his own serve in what was the longest ATP Tour match of 2021 so far at three hours and 26 minutes.
Novak Djokovic converted just five out of 28 points as he crashed to a surprise loss in Belgrade
Third seed Aslan Karatsev claimed his first win over a top-five player after a stunning display
It was Djokovic’s second surprise defeat in nine days after he lost to Dan Evans in Monte Carlo
Speaking after the match, Djokovic congratulated his opponent, who was world No 253 last March before Covid-19 rocked the world and led to a five-month pause of the rankings.
‘Hats off to Karatsev, he was bold and deserved to win,’ Djokovic told an online news conference.
‘I will probably not be able to recollect all the memorable rallies in this match because I lost. I am not happy with my performance. I put up a fight, but he delivered great shots every time he needed to.
‘I was unlucky at times – it all came down to one or two shots – but I had too many ups and downs throughout the match.’
The defeat marks a 12 months to forget for Djokovic, who has been widely criticised for stating that he is opposed to vaccinations and for taking a relaxed attitude to the pandemic.
He faced condemnation for defying Spain’s lockdown laws last May to train on court in Marbella when players were not allowed to use sports facilities at that time before being slammed for hosting a tournament in Serbia that saw him and other players attend a nightclub in Belgrade, ignore social distancing protocols and play basketball together as large crowds watched the event.
Djokovic was slammed for organising an exhibition event that ignored Covid-19 protocols
Borna Coric, Grigor Dimitrov and Djokovic all contracted the virus while playing at the event
Grigor Dimitrov and Borna Coric announced that they had tested positive after playing at the tournament before Djokovic himself revealed that he and his wife Jelena had caught the virus, with Djokovic’s coach Goran Ivanisevic suffering the fate days later.
In late August, just prior to the US Open, Djokovic moved to increase player power by setting up a new players’ union along with Canadian Vasek Pospisil, with around 60 other male players signing up despite opposite from Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray.
The 33-year-old then saw himself disqualified from the New York Grand Slam after accidentally hitting a line judge in the throat with a ball after whacking it in frustration after going 6-5 down in the first set, having brushed off warnings in the past for losing his temper on court.
Djokovic set up a new players’ union despite opposition from Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer
Djokovic was spotted in October without a face mask in public when offering Serbian children tennis tips as he ignored advice in the country to wear a mask and stick to social distancing guidelines.
Finally, he was ridiculed in January for saying that players should have the strict quarantine conditions imposed on them for the Australian Open relaxed, while others should benefit from private housing with tennis courts.
However, despite the furore, he did go on to the win the Melbourne tournament for a record-extending ninth time in the Open era as he outclassed Daniil Medvedev, adding to the Masters 1000 titles he won in Cincinnati and Rome following the virus-enforced shutdown of the sport between March and August last year.
The 33-year-old was disqualified from the US Open for accidentally hitting a line judge
On court, the Serbian won the Australian Open in February and broke Federer’s No 1 record
He also surpassed Roger Federer last month for the most weeks spent at No 1 in the world by reaching 311 weeks at the top before flouting Covid restrictions yet again to party with fans in Belgrade with no masks or social distancing.
Djokovic has the opportunity to put his defeat to Karatsev behind him in Madrid early next month, where he enters the tournament as defending champion in a field including Medvedev, Nadal and US Open champion Dominic Thiem.