Australian Open: Novak Djokovic demolishes Tommy Paul to set up final date with Stefanos Tsitsipas
There are few harder tasks in tennis than beating Novak Djokovic at the Australian Open.
The 21-time Grand Slam winner extended his record at Melbourne Park to 10 semi-final appearances and 10 victories following a 7-5, 6-1, 6-2 demolition of Tommy Paul.
Now, only Stefanos Tsitsipas stands between him and a record 10th Australian Open title to put him equal with Rafael Nadal for most career Grand Slam titles.
Djokovic has looked increasingly invincible having seemingly overcome his left hamstring injury but, after racing into a 5-1 lead in the opening set, his game briefly eluded him.
He lost 11 of the next 13 points as Paul brought the match level in a set where Djokovic hit an uncharacteristic 24 unforced errors.
Perhaps the distraction over the controversial footage of his father Srdjan posing with Russian fans carrying a flag with Vladimir Putin had played a part. As it was, Djokovic Sr opted to stay away to avoid even further distraction.
Whatever the reason for his stuttering, Djokovic, playing on the 15th anniversary of his first Australian Open title, quickly restored his supremacy to break once more and take that first set.
The unseeded American, playing in what was his first Grand Slam semi-final, was perpetually on the backfoot after being broken in his opening service of each set.
He had his chances in the match but the statistics highlighted the difference – the 25-year-old converting just two of nine break point chances while Djokovic managed nine from 11 in what was an increasingly clinical performance.
Afterwards, Djokovic said: “I’m really thankful to still have enough gas in my legs to play at this level. I was really fortunate to hold my nerves towards the end of the first set. That was the key.”
Sunday’s final is a repeat of the 2021 French Open final, which Djokovic won, and the winner will be crowned the new world No1.
In contrast to Djokovic’s semi-final record at Melbourne Park, Tsitsipas had three times made it to the last four without success. On the fourth time of asking and, after surviving a late wobble, the Greek finally made amends.
Tsitsipas has called the Australian Open his home Grand Slam, even with it being played 10,000 miles away from where he resides. Inside Rod Laver Arena, he felt every bit the home player, with raucous Greek support throughout.
Despite having previously been undone by Rafael Nadal and Daniil Medvedev twice at this stage, the omens had looked good going into the match. Five times he had played Karen Khachanov, and five times been victorious.
In addition, Tsitsipas has never lost a match at the Australian Open when winning the first set, and that record continued for what proved a 7-6, 6-4, 6-7, 6-3 victory.
“I’ve wanted to put Greek tennis on the map,” he said following the win. “Coming from a small country like Greece, I feel so grateful I get the support like this. I never thought I would be treated so well here, so I’m extremely happy I’m in the final now.”
Twice he broke the Russian in the opening set, but he was broken back on two occasions amid being given two time violations from the umpire.
In the next two sets, Khachanov, who had never before been past the third round at the Australian Open, was ground down in the longer rallies and looked destined for a straight-sets defeat. But he recovered from a break down, saved two match points against him in the tiebreak with monstrous forehands deep into the court before winning the set.
It only briefly stemmed the flow of the match, however, as Tsitsipas broke early in the fourth for a 3-0 advantage, a lead which he never looked like conceding.
Tsitsipas has had a perfect start to 2023, with 10 wins from 10 matches. In the past, he has been occasionally let down by both his backhand and mental frailty. Amid the Khachanov comeback, however, both proved resolute.