Of all his considerable talents, Novak Djokovic’s ability scrapping anything that seems to get in your way might be the most valuable.
So forget about the potential distraction of his father’s decision to stay away from Rod Laver Arena for Djokovic’s semifinal against unseeded American Tommy Paul at the Australian Open on Friday after getting caught up in a dispute over being seen with a group waving Russian flags banned from the tournament. Forget the heavily bandaged left hamstring that was a problem for Djokovic last week. Forget how physical the points were against Paul. Forget how Djokovic produced twice as many unforced errors, 24, as winners, 12, in the first set. Forget the four-game hiatus that went to Paul. Forget the brief tug of war with the chair umpire.
And remember this: Djokovic simply doesn’t lose semis or finals at Melbourne Park. He does. Not lose. And so, unsurprisingly, he overcame shaky early play and took charge of the match, beating Paul 7-5, 6-1, 6-2 to move closer to his tenth Australian Open championship and 22nd Australian Open title. Grand Slam in general.
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From 5-5 in the first set, Djokovic claimed seven games in a row and 14 of the last 17.
«I am very grateful that I still have enough energy in my legs to be able to play at this level,» said Djokovic, a 35-year-old Serb. «Some long rallies, you could really feel it. We both had heavy legs in the first set. I was very lucky to control my nerves towards the end of the first set. That was the key. After that, I started to swing.» through the ball more».
extended his Australian Open winning streak to 27 games, the longest in the Open era, dating from 1968.
There was a break in that winning streak a year ago, of course, when Djokovic was deported from Australia before the competition started because he hadn’t been vaccinated against COVID-19. He has not yet received the vaccines, but the strict border controls established by the country during the pandemic have been relaxed.
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«Of course, it’s not nice for me to go through this with all the things I had to deal with last year and this year in Australia. It’s not something I want or need,» said Djokovic, who defended his fatherSrdjan, for being with a group of people waving Russian flags, at least one with a picture of Vladimir Putin, after his son’s quarterfinal win against a Russian opponent.
«I hope people let it be,» Djokovic said, «and we can focus on tennis.»
That’s what the No. 4 seed Djokovic himself will hope to do on Sunday when he takes on No. 3 seed Stefanos Tsitsipas, who eliminated Karen Khachanov 7-6 (2), 6-4, 6-7 (6). , 6-3 to reach his first final at Melbourne Park and second at a Slam.
Whoever wins the final will be promoted to No. 1 in the ATP rankings. For Djokovic, that would mark a return to a place he has held for more weeks than anyone else; for Tsitsipas, if he would score a debut there.
«I like that number. It’s about you. It’s unique. It’s ‘1,’» said Tsitsipas, who was 0-3 in the Australian Open semifinals before Friday. «These are the moments I’ve been working hard for.»
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Djokovic is now a perfect 19-0 in recent two rounds in Melbourne, and his nine wins there are already a men’s record. If he can add one more to go along with his seven Wimbledon titles, three at the US Open and two at the French Open, Djokovic would tie Nadal for the most Grand Slam trophies won by a man.
«Winning Grand Slams and being No. 1 in the world are probably the two biggest peaks you can climb as a professional tennis player,» said Djokovic, who is 10-2 against Tsitsipas, winning their last nine meetings in a row. «So let’s see what happens.»
Tsitsipas’ other big final came at the 2021 French Open, when he took the first two sets before squandering that big lead and losing to Djokovic in five.
All of which tied into a funny moment this week, when Djokovic said of Tsitsipas: «He’s never played in a final, am I right?» Reminded by reporters of what happened at Roland Garros, Djokovic replied: «That’s right. Sorry, my mistake.»
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When asked about that exchange, Tsitsipas responded with a deadpan expression and the words: «I don’t remember either.»
Until this week, Paul, ranked 35th, had never made it past the fourth round in 13 previous major appearances.
The 25-year-old was born in New Jersey and grew up in North Carolina, playing tennis at a club whose walls were adorned with posters of Andy Roddick, the last American man to win a Grand Slam singles titleway back at the 2003 US Open. That drought will continue for now, because while Djokovic wasn’t at his best in the first set, he was good enough in the end, breaking in the last game and never relenting.
«He didn’t really let me execute any game plan that I wanted to do,» Paul said.
The problems for Djokovic came from the beginning.
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The footwork was not up to his usual standard of reaching all the balls. The shot was unsatisfactory. The portion was so-so. He started gesturing and yelling towards coach Goran Ivanisevic and the rest of his entourage.
In the first game, Djokovic missed overhand, a weakness he never fixed. He delivered a backhand to the net. He committed a double fault. Still, he overcame that to take a 5-1 lead. Then came a quick change of direction.
Djokovic broke serving for the set there. And again at 5-3, when Paul struck with a forehand down the line and Djokovic’s backhand at a 29-shot point landed wide. Paul held for 5-5.
Could I be doing a combination of that?
Not for much longer. Djokovic, the best returner of his generation, or perhaps any generation, broke to close out that set, when Paul sent a forehand wide. Serbian flags were unfurled in the stands and the air was filled with chants of Djokovic’s two-syllable nickname, «No-le! No-le!»
The contest was never much of a contest from there.