World No. 1 Novak Djokovic looked to have done his homework on Thursday night, but still needed to work hard for a place in his ninth Australian Open final after he overcame Russian qualifier Aslan Karatsev 6-3, 6-4, 6-2 in one hour and 53 minutes on Rod Laver Arena.
With a limited number of fans back on-site at Melbourne Park, after a five-day lockdown that was implemented on 13 February, eight-time champion Djokovic ended the fairy-tale run of World No. 114 Karatsev, who had been bidding to become the first player to reach the final on his major debut.
Through 15 games, Djokovic had committed just one unforced error and he struck 30 total winners en route to the 28th Grand Slam championship final of his career. The 34-year-old, who completed the victory with his 17th ace, will now look to add to his 17 major crowns and move one step closer to all-time title leaders Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer (both with 20 Grand Slam trophies).
“I felt as best as I felt so far in the tournament tonight,” said Djokovic, who suffered an abdominal injury in his third-round victory over Taylor Fritz on Friday last week. “Physically, mentally. I was hitting the ball very well, mixing the pace. [I] didn’t give him the same looks at all. [I] always kind of kept him guessing and served well when I needed to get out of trouble, late in the second set.
“I’m just very pleased with the performance. It came at the right time, before [the] last match in a Grand Slam [tournament]. Being in this situation many times [before] I think helps kind of gather all the necessary elements for me to peak at the right time, which is happening again. I’m obviously very happy about. I’m also happy that I have two days off now. Recovery is still the priority.”
Djokovic, who is eight matches unbeaten in 2021, will now prepare to play fourth-seeded Russian Daniil Medvedev or fifth seed Stefanos Tsitsipas of Greece in Sunday’s title match. Djokovic leads Medvedev 4-3 in their ATP Head2Head series and the Serbian leads Tsitsipas 4-2.
“Regardless of who I face on Sunday, I’m ready for the toughest match of the tournament, without a doubt. Both of these guys are in great form. Medvedev is playing [at] an extremely high [level]. He’s on a winning match streak. He’s just the man to beat. On the other hand, Tsitsipas produced some phenomenal tennis last night against Rafa. Coming back from two sets down against Rafa [at] a Grand Slam, any Grand Slam, is a huge effort.”
After Nadal’s loss to Tsitsipas in the Australian Open quarter-finals on Wednesday, Djokovic is guaranteed to remain as World No. 1 through at least 8 March, when he will overtake Federer to set a new record of 311 total weeks at No. 1 in the FedEx ATP Rankings.
Karatsev didn’t appear to be fazed by the biggest occasion of his career, striking powerful groundstrokes to keep Djokovic behind the baseline in the first set. The Russian won four straight points from 0/30 to overcome his first challenge at 2-3, but Djokovic broke to love for a 5-3 advantage after Karatsev made three consecutive errors. Djokovic won eight straight points to clinch the 35-minute opener, which saw Karatsev commit 13 unforced errors.
Djokovic continued to raise his level of play and broke serve twice in the second set — at 1-1, courtesy of a Karatsev double fault, and again at 3-1 with blistering shot-making. Such was the quality of Djokovic’s play, that it was inevitable he would take his foot of the pedal momentarily. He did, and Karatsev took advantage — breaking serve in the eighth game.
Karatsev went on to vary his length of shot and pace, providing Djokovic a tense finish when he served for the second set. Djokovic closed out on his third set point, having saved two break points, then took an early lead in the third set after Karatsev hit four groundstroke errors in the first game.
But Karatsev, in just his 19th tour-level match, continued to produce winners — as he’d done in victories over eighth seed Diego Schwartzman, No. 18 seed Grigor Dimitrov and No. 20 seed Felix Auger-Aliassime at Melbourne Park. He recovered to 2-2 in the fourth set, before Djokovic surged ahead and didn’t look back.
“I want to give credit to Karatsev for a great tournament,” said Djokovic. “Maybe it wasn’t his day today, but he had big wins [on his] debut, [and a] first Grand Slam semi-final.
Karatsev, who is projected to break into the Top 50 of the FedEx ATP Rankings on Monday, won 11 of 32 second-service points. He hit 24 winners and committed 30 unforced errors.
“It was a great two weeks for me, starting with the qualifying,” said Karatsev. “It’s a good experience. To play against Novak, helps me to get experience.”