Novak Djokovic has subdued any lingering injury concerns and ended the fairytale run of Russian qualifier Aslan Karatsev with a comfortable straight-sets semi-final victory at the Australian Open.
The world No.1 is now eyeing off a ninth title in his happy hunting ground of Melbourne after defeating the Russian qualifier 6-3 6-4 6-2 in under two hours to book his place in Sunday’s final.
The Serb, who’s never lost on nine occasions in the Happy Slam’s final four, hit twice as many winners than unforced errors in a showing that was a far cry from his struggles against Taylor Fritz and Alexander Zverev.
In ominous signs for his final rival, either Greece’s Stefanos Tsitsipas or Russia’s Daniil Medvedev, Djokovic said it was his first match free of abdominal pain since the third round.
“I felt as best as I felt so far in the tournament tonight. Physically, mentally, as well. I was hitting the ball very well, mixing the pace. Didn’t give him the same looks at all,” Djokovic told reporters.
“I’m just very pleased with the performance. It came at the right time. Before last match in a grand slam, couldn’t be a better timing for me to play my best tennis.”
Karatsev was the first man to reach the semi-final stage of a grand slam in his maiden outing and did not seem to be overawed by the occasion early as his high-risk, high-reward game flowed.
The newly reinstated Rod Laver Arena crowd was enraptured as he traced down a Djokovic drop shot and fended off a wrong-footing attempt with a volley into the open court in his second service game, before coming close to breaking Djokovic’s serve in the next.
But Djokovic, whose reputation as the game’s best Gumby-like defender precedes him, stood up to the challenge and shifted another gear as the Russian pulverised the ball off both wings.
Despite some impressive all-court play in Djokovic’s fourth service game, the Russian – who had won eight straight matches through qualifying and the main draw – gifted some loose errors, which were enough for the world No.1 to clinch the opening set.
Djokovic’s exceptional return game came to the fore early in the third game of the second set.
He lunged to chip a seemingly unreachable backhand for most others and then drilled a forehand at Karatsev’s feet the following point to bring up break points, and a Russian double fault was an easy gimme.
Djokovic continued to be unimpeded by any abdominal issues from the previous rounds as he drilled sliding backhand winners on the stretch, and the Russian started to overcook his blitzing groundstrokes.
Karatsev – who came into the match boasting the fastest average speed off both wings – hit 14 winners to 18 unforced errors nearing the end of the second set. By comparison, Djokovic was 19 and 2.
However, Karatsev turned the set on its head with inspired returning that licked the sidelines and rifled his serve to consolidate a late break.
After a pinpoint drop shot capped off a 32-shot lung burster, the crowd sensed a turnaround could be on the cards.
Two big Serbian serves scuppered the Russian’s opportunity to level the set, and a cry of ‘Idemo!’ boomed from the top seed.
From there, the result sprinted away as Djokovic showed the class that’s seen him hoist the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup eight times over.
Djokovic reeled off seven of the last nine games to end the match, snaring two breaks of serve and putting an exclamation point on the result with back-to-back aces – his 16th and 17th of the match.
“Well, of course [never losing in the semi-finals/finals] contributes to more confidence, prior to coming into the finals knowing that I never lost in the finals or semi-finals just makes me feel more comfortable being on the court,” Djokovic said.
“[But] that’s not gonna be decisive factor I think on Sunday. Regardless of my great record I think both Tsitsipas and Medvedev will want to get their first grand slam title.”
The 27-year-old Russian can still hold his head up high after his stunning run to the final four.
He tripled his win tally at the top flight and more than doubled his career prize money with an $850,000 pay cheque.
Djokovic is aiming for his 18th grand slam win – and third straight crown in Melbourne – on Sunday, which would see the Serb close within two titles of Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer’s joint grand slam record of 20.