MELBOURNE, Australia – Novak Djokovic had a perfect record in the Australian Open semifinals, and was playing near-flawless tennis to protect it.
It didn’t matter that on the other side of the net was Aslan Karatsev, a 27-year-old Russian, ranked 114th, who had surpassed qualification to debut in a Grand Slam tournament after nine unsuccessful attempts.
Djokovic only made one unforced error in more than 50 minutes.
It was tight for the first seven games, before Djokovic scored eight straight points to win the first set, and again when Karatsev did an all or nothing at the end of the second set.
Sensing a shift in support for the homeless – there was a vocal crowd at Rod Laver Arena after a five-day lapse when fans were shut out during a local COVID-19 outbreak – Djokovic picked up speed and finished off his opponent 6 – 3, 6-4, 6-2.
He is now 9-0 in the semifinals in the season-opener major and a victory for his ninth Australian title.
“The more I win, the better I feel coming back,” said Djokovic, the top ranked. “The love story continues.”
The 33-year-old Djokovic will have a day off Friday when No. 4 Daniil Medvedev and No. 5 Stefanos Tsitsipas, who is coming off a five-set win over Rafael Nadal, meet in the other semi-final. He said he would rest and pop the popcorn to see who he would face in Sunday’s final.
Given his past success in Melbourne, Djokovic should feel confident about entering another championship match. He already owns a record eight Australian titles, and is aiming for a title number 18, which would narrow the gap to Roger Federer and Nadal, who share the men’s record at 20.
Djokovic also aims to be only the second man to win nine or more titles in one of the four Grand Slams. Nadal has 13 at Roland Garros. Djokovic in Australia and Federer, with eight at Wimbledon, currently share second place.
“Recovery is the priority right now,” Djokovic said. “I’ve had enough match play, enough practice.
“Right now he’s just gathering all the energy he needs for the biggest game at the Australian Open.”
Djokovic has played and beaten players like Federer – four times – Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka in the semi-finals at Melbourne Park and was bringing that kind of game against Karatsev right up until he served for the second set.
The Russian qualifier then improved his game, as he did in victories over three seeded players, becoming the first man in the professional era to reach the semifinals in his major debut.
After a difficult hold in the seventh game, Karatsev broke Djokovic’s serve for the first time and then narrowed the gap to 5-4.
Djokovic regained his composure to win two set points, but again narrowed, losing them with a long forehand and a drop attempt at the end of a 32-shot exchange.
He had to save the break points before trying again. When Karatsev landed a forehand, Djokovic jumped while hitting the air and returned to his changing chair yelling, “Yes, yes, yes.”
The crowd was at his side again, chanting “Nole, Nole, Nole.”
He broke to open the third set and again two more times to finish off.
After the victory, Djokovic said that Karatsev deserved a lot of praise for his incredible breakthrough.
“Well, first I want to give Karatsev credit for a great tournament,” he said. “Maybe it was not his day today, but he had great victories and debuted, first Grand Slam semifinals. Congratulations on a great result.”
Karatsev will enter the Top 50 for the first time next week, which means he won’t have to go through qualifying for the majors.
“It has given me more confidence, I have started to believe more,” Karatsev said of his career.
The most important thing he has learned in Melbourne, he added, is “that I can play with everyone, be there, compete with everyone.”
And that goes straight to the top.
Djokovic has been upset with an abdominal muscle problem since the third round. He initially said it was a tear, but has since declined to discuss the details until after the tournament.
After his win over Karatsev, he said it is “the best I have felt in the whole tournament.”
“I felt great. I could get through the ball. No pain. The best game yet,” said Djokovic. “It came at the right time. I’m excited to feel this way.”
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.