Novak Djokovic remains on course to win a record-equaling 22nd grand slam title after beating American Tommy Paul in straight sets in the Australian Open semifinals Friday, setting up a mouthwatering final with Stefanos Tsitsipas.
The Serbian faced stiff opposition from the big-hitting Paul in his 7-5 6-1 6-2 victory to reach his 33rd grand slam final.
His victory came just hours after Tsitsipas had beaten Russian Karen Khachanov 7-6 (7-2) 6-4 6-7 (6-8) 6-3 to reach his second career grand slam final.
The final is set to be a thrilling encounter and whoever wins will be crowned the new men’s world No.1. Tsitsipas is looking for his first grand slam title, while Djokovic is just one match away from equaling Rafael Nadal’s record of 22 grand slam titles.
Despite battling a hamstring injury in earlier rounds of the tournament, Djokovic has been dominant in Melbourne, sweeping past his last four opponents without dropping a set. But off the court there has been controversy.
Djokovic’s father, Srdjan, was not in attendance for Friday’s match after he was pictured at a demonstration with fans holding Russian flags, voicing his support for Russia.
In a video posted on YouTube by a known Vladimir Putin supporter, the Serbian player’s father can be seen posing with a fan outside Melbourne’s Rod Laver Arena. The man is wearing the “Z” symbol on his shirt – a symbol viewed as a sign of support for Russia, including its invasion of Ukraine – while holding a Russian flag with Putin’s face on it. “Long live the Russia,” he says.
In a statement issued before the match, Srdjan said he was in Melbourne “to support my son only,” and “had no intention of causing such headlines or disruption.”
“So there is no disruption to tonight’s semi-final for my son or for the other player, I have chosen to watch from home,” the statement continued.
In the semifinal, the 35-year-old raced into a 5-1 lead in the first set. But, Paul – the huge underdog after a dream run to the semifinal – fought back by breaking Djokovic’s serve twice to level the set at 5-5.
Djokovic was able to correct the skid and close out the opening set. As the match progressed, his class showed as he carefully dissected his American opponent, converting seven of 11 break points.
The victory, which took Djokovic two hours and 20 minute, leaves him still in the hunt to claim a record-extending 10th Australian Open title.
Djokovic said that his level was “perfect” heading into Sunday’s final.
“Of course, you are not as fresh as at the beginning of the tournament but we put in a lot of of hours in the off season. I know what’s expected and I have been in so many positions in my career,” he said in his on-court interview immediately afterwards.
“It’s a great battle, with yourself and the opponent. Long rallies and you could feel the heavy legs in the first set but I was fortunate to hold my nerves. After that I was swinging through the ball more and I am just pleased to get through another final.”
It was the end of the road for Paul who had shocked many by reaching the first grand slam semifinal of his career.
Currently ranked No. 35 in the world, Paul became the first American man to reach the last four of the Australian Open since Andy Roddick in 2009 when he defeated fellow American Ben Shelton in the quarterfinals.
The 25-year-old is now guaranteed to climb into the world’s top 20 for the first time, having beaten top-30 players Alejandro Davidovich Fokina and Roberto Bautista Agut on the way to the last four.
For Tsitsipas, it is an opportunity for revenge against Djokovic.
The pair met in the 2021 French Open final – Tsitsipas’ first career grand slam final – in which Djokovic came from two sets down to defeat the Greek player.
But now, just over 18 months on, the 24-year-old has a chance to avenge that heartbreaking loss and after his semifinal victory against Khachanov, he said that he is playing some of the best tennis of his career.
“I just see no downside or negativity in what I’m trying to do out there,” Tsitsipas said. “Even if it doesn’t work, I’m very optimistic and positive about any outcome, any opponent that I have to face.
“This is something that has been sort of lacking in my game. I genuinely believe in what I’m able to produce. That is more than enough. I go about [it] this way… I strive for it every single day. It might not go the way I want it to, but I put 110 percent out there.”
Although his procession to the final was briefly halted by Khachanov holding off two match points in the third set, Tsitsipas was able to beat the Russian in three hours and 21 minutes.
And with a spot at the top of the world rankings on the line, Tsitsipas said he’s living a “childhood dream.”
“I like that number … It’s a grand slam final, I’m fighting for the No. 1 spot, it’s a childhood dream to be capturing that No. 1 spot one day,” he said.
“I’m close. I’m happy that this opportunity comes here in Australia and not somewhere else, because this is a place of significance.”
Djokovic holds the record for the most time spent as the world No. 1 with 373 weeks. Seeded fourth at the Australian Open and currently ranked No. 5 in the world, the Serb played a limited schedule in 2022 because of his decision not to be vaccinated against Covid-19.
He was deported from Australia ahead of the start of the 2022 Australian Open, and he was unable to travel to compete in some areas holding tournaments – including the United States – because of his vaccination status, thus losing many of his ranking points he could not defend.