Melbourne, Feb 16 (AFP): Novak Djokovic smashed a racket, sending a piece of the frame flying. Later, he plopped himself down right there at the back of the blue court, looking forlorn as can be.
He dropped the opening set against Alexander Zverev, one of the young guys trying to shove aside Djokovic and the rest of the Big Three. Djokovic trailed 3-0 in the third. And 3-0 in the fourth, too, eventually even facing a set point.
Ah, but this is Djokovic we’re talking about, the ultimate competitor. And this is Djokovic at the Australian Open, where no man ever has been better. So, naturally, Djokovic pulled himself together and pulled out the victory, reaching his ninth semi-final at Melbourne Park by eliminating No 6 seed Zverev 6-7 (6), 6-2, 6-4, 7-6 (6) Tuesday night.
“I kind of regained my focus after I broke that racket. Things started to shift a little bit for me in a positive direction,” Djokovic said in his on-court interview in Rod Laver Arena about the way he mangled his equipment by hitting it against the court three times after netting a backhand return at 3-1 in the third set.
“It was a relief for me, but I wouldn’t recommend this kind of relief-channeling, if you want to call it,” Djokovic said later. “Of course I’m not proud of that, but you go through a lot of different emotions, you go through an inner battle. Everyone is different. I have my own demons that I have to fight with.”
Djokovic is closing in on a ninth championship in Australia, which would add to his own record for a man. And an 18th Grand Slam title overall, two fewer than rivals Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal (who plays in the quarter-finals Wednesday).
Both men wore tape on their midsections Tuesday to help with abdominal issues; Djokovic was hurt during his third-round win against Taylor Fritz and said he hasn’t been practicing as normal on his off-days.
Several leading men have been injured in Australia, and Djokovic thinks a big reason for that is the unusual circumstances of players’ needing to quarantine for two weeks upon arrival in the country because of the strict COVID-19 pandemic regulations Down Under.
“What we are seeing is not normal. It’s not what we are used to. Top players are the fittest,” the No 1-ranked Djokovic said after his 23-ace performance against Zverev.
Zverev, the 2020 US Open runner-up and a semifinalist in Melbourne a year ago, once more had trouble against elite competition on the biggest stages. He fell to 0-8 against Top 10 opponents at Grand Slam tournaments; he is 25-29 facing such foes in tour-level matches otherwise.
In the semi-finals, Djokovic will face the surprise of the tournament: Aslan Karatsev, a 27-year-old from Russia who is ranked 114th and needed to go through qualifying rounds just to get into the main draw of a major for the first time.
“To be honest,” Djokovic said, “I haven’t seen him play at all before the Australian Open.”
No one ever had been to the final four in his Slam debut, until Karatsev’s 2-6, 6-4, 6-1, 6-2 elimination Tuesday of No 18 Grigor Dimitrov, who was hurt by back spasms that made tying his shoes a chore.
Karatsev is the lowest-ranked man to reach the Australian Open semi-finals since Patrick McEnroe — John’s brother — also was No 114 in 1991 — and the lowest-ranked man to reach the semi-finals at any Slam since Goran Ivanisevic was No 125 at 2001 Wimbledon.
“It’s an unbelievable feeling,” Karatsev said. “Of course, it’s first time. First time in main draw; first time semis. It’s incredible.”
That’s a pretty good word for what he has managed to do. Karatsev failed in nine previous attempts to go through qualifying rounds to play at a Grand Slam tournament.
Now he’s making the most of it, getting past Dimitrov — a three-time major semifinalist — after also eliminating two other seeded players, No 8 Diego Schwartzman and No 20 Felix Auger-Aliassime.
“It’s great to see. I think it’s great to see,” Dimitrov said about Karatsev’s success. “Surprised? No.”
Bothered by back spams that developed Monday, Dimitrov was not at his best. He finished the match barely able to serve — and barely able to walk up the stairs as he departed Rod Laver Arena.
As well as she played at the start of her Australian Open quarter-final, Serena Williams suddenly was struggling early in the second set.
After one mistake against No 2 seed Simona Halep — who won the last time they played each other — Williams pointed at her racket strings and made a sour face, as if to make clear it wasn’t truly her own fault. After another, Williams looked up at her guest box with palms up and asked, “What is happening?”
That dismay did not last long. Williams claimed the last five games and beat Halep 6-3, 6-3 on Tuesday to return to the final four at Melbourne Park for the first time since she won the tournament in 2017.
Seeking a record-tying 24th Grand Slam title, Williams set up a showdown against No 3 Naomi Osaka, who will carry a 19-match winning streak into Thursday’s semi-finals.
“She’s Serena,” Osaka said. “I feel really intimidated when I see her on the other side of the court.”
This will be their fourth career matchup — all on hard courts — and Osaka leads 2-1, the most memorable encounter, of course, coming in the final of the 2018 US Open.
Williams got into an argument with the chair umpire after her coach was caught trying to relay a signal — that’s not allowed in Grand Slam play — and wound up being docked a game. Osaka’s victory, which earned her first major title, closed with thousands of fans filling Arthur Ashe Stadium with boos and both of the athletes were in tears during the trophy ceremony.
There were no spectators Tuesday in Rod Laver Arena, because they’ve been banned from the tournament during a five-day government lockdown in response to a local rise in COVID-19 cases (the applause and other crowd noise TV viewers are hearing is being added to the broadcast feed and isn’t actually happening in the stadium).
That loss to Osaka in Flushing Meadows is part of an 0-4 record for Williams in Grand Slam finals since her last championship. Another one of those defeats came against Halep at Wimbledon in 2019.
“Normally I never look at my draw,” Osaka said. “But everyone has told me about my draw here, so I kind of had no choice but to know who my next opponent is. It’s definitely going to be really fun.”
Seeded third, Osaka reached 122 mph (196 kph) on her serve against Hsieh. She hit seven aces, lost only two points on her first serve and was never broken en route to her 19th consecutive victory.
Osaka also played excellent defense, such as in the final game, when she raced forward to chase down a drop shot, flicking a backhand cross-court for a winner.
“I couldn’t afford to be lazy with my footwork,” Osaka said with a smile. “I didn’t want to play three sets.”
At 35, Hsieh was the oldest woman to make her Grand Slam quarter-final debut in the professional era. But Osaka wasn’t fazed by Hsieh’s flat, deceptive two-handed strokes from both sides, pounding forehand winners into both corners.
Hsieh said Osaka is a threat to win the championship.
“She always can go all the way,” Hsieh said. “She just needs to play her game and stay calm. She’s a great player.”
Osaka’s winning streak includes a US Open title in September for her third Grand Slam championship. The streak also includes her fourth-round win last week, when she saved two match points and swept the final four games to overtake Garbiñe Muguruza.
“It makes me a bit more calm, knowing that my back was severely against the wall,” Osaka said.