MELBOURNE, Australia -- When Denis Istomin played his first Grand Slam match 11 years ago at the Australian Open, he found himself up against the all-conquering world No. 1, Roger Federer, who was enjoying the most dominant period of his career.
Istomin would win seven games in what was a brutal introduction to Grand Slam tennis, especially as it was against the player he, like so many before and since, wanted to emulate.
"Everybody tried to play the same way, walk the same way. For me it was a good experience to play against him. I tried to walk the same [as Federer], but it doesn't work. He is a good walker," Istomin, smiling, told ESPN.com on Saturday.
Istomin might laugh at what's now a distant memory, but the 30-year-old from Uzbekistan has good reason to be happy, after following up his sensational win over Novak Djokovic with another five-set victory against Pablo Carrena-Busta of Spain. The result has lifted Istomin into the fourth round of the Australian Open, matching his career-best run at a Grand Slam.
At 6-foot-2, Istomin is a stylish player with a sound technique, but his career almost ended before it began. In 2001, doctors said he was lucky to be alive after breaking his leg in a horrible car crash on his way to a Futures event. He was in a hospital for 3½ months.
"For about half a year I couldn't walk normally," he said. "Then I started to walk, picked up the racket, and after two years, I played some small, local tournaments in Russia. I won some of them, and my mother said, 'Let's try, keep going, maybe we can play.' I wasn't thinking about playing on this level, just to try to play some Futures, maybe some local tournaments. But it worked.
"For sure it was tough. I had problems with money to travel. Nobody helped me. Even though I was No. 1 in Uzbekistan before the crash, of course, they forgot about me. They didn't think I could play. But when I came back they helped me a lot, they gave me wild cards for small tournaments and they found some money for me to travel with a coach. It was a tough time, but I wasn't thinking about trying to be top 100 or anything. I was just playing to enjoy the game."
Softly spoken, warm and quick with a smile, Istomin is in his 12th year on tour. He has earned more than $4 million in prize money and is one of the most popular players in the locker room, with Federer describing him as "super sweet."
"It sounds a bit strange," Istomin says. "But I'm really friendly with everyone. I really respect all the players, and what they do. I don't have some difference between Roger and No. 200 in the world, so I always try to say hi to everyone and try to speak and be friendly, so maybe the players just feel it."
Along with his gentle touch, Istomin has always been known for being coached by his mother, Klaudiya Istomina. While it's something quite rare in the men's game, for the Uzbek, it's completely normal.
Istomina is sparing in her praise, it seems, offering a simple "good job" after his wins over Djokovic and Carreno Busta. Might she be more effusive if he were to win the Australian Open?
"Maybe, but I don't know," he said.
Amazingly, Istomin almost didn't make this year's Australian Open either. In the semifinal of the Asian wild-card playoff competition, he had to save four match points against Prajnesh Gunneswaran. Fast forward six weeks, and he's beating the six-time champion en route to a fourth-round clash with Grigor Dimitrov.
"I was working hard, and I played a lot of matches at the end of last year, so maybe the body is better prepared," Istomin said. "I was practicing a lot, just working on my serve, normal stuff, nothing special, and it just all came together."
For Istomin, nothing special is working well. He is content and happy to answer even the oddest questions, like the email from a listener to Australian Open Radio during his win over Djokovic asking: "Is it true that Istomin has 11 toes?"
"No," he said, before bursting out laughing. "I have size 13 shoes, though, so you can say I have 13 toes".