MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Andy Murray has sprung to the defense of his great rival Novak Djokovic after the Serb's surprise exit at the Australian Open.
Djokovic, toppled as world number one by Murray at the end of last year, was sent packing by wildcard Denis Istomin in the second round to end his hopes of a seventh title at Melbourne Park.
It was 12-times grand slam champion Djokovic's earliest loss at a grand slam in nearly a decade and fueled talk that the 29-year-old is showing signs of a decline.
Murray, now clear favorite to claim his first Australian Open title having reached the last 16 without dropping a set, said people should not be too quick to judge Djokovic.
"I think everyone needs to give him a bit of a break. It is hard to keep up the intensity week after week, that's why everyone has been so impressed by the group of players at the top of the game over the last few years," Britain's Murray said in his column on the BBC website on Friday.
"I think the players themselves are a lot more understanding, as we know how difficult it is and how incredible the consistency has been over the last few years. It's almost inevitable it will drop off at some point."
Murray, the reigning Wimbledon and Olympic champion, said he was surprised by Djokovic's early defeat but said it hardly represented a crisis for a player who has so often been his nemesis.
"Everyone was surprised by Novak's exit in Melbourne, for sure. But out of the last few grand slams he made the final of the U.S. Open, the third round at Wimbledon and won the French Open," Murray said.
"Every single player on the Tour, bar one or two, would sign up for those results. When you compare it to what his standards are, he'll probably be disappointed.
"But if you compare it to every other tennis player in the world, his last 12-18 months have been phenomenal."
Murray, who dispatched big-serving American Sam Querrey on Friday, next faces unseeded German Mischa Zverev.
(Reporting by Martyn Herman in London, editing by Ed Osmond)