MELBOURNE, Australia — Novak Djokovic put aside some shaky play in the early going and took over his Australian Open semifinal against unseeded American Tommy Paul on Friday, winning 7-5, 6-1, 6-2 to close in on a 10th championship at Melbourne Park and 22nd Grand Slam title overall.
Djokovic’s parents and brother are in town for the tournament for the first time since he claimed major trophy No. 1 there back in 2008, but his father stayed away from this match after getting caught up in a flap connected to spectators who brought banned Russian flags on site earlier in the week.
Forget about that potential distraction. Forget about the heavily taped left hamstring that was an issue last week. Forget about how Djokovic produced twice as many unforced errors, 24, as winners, 12, in the opening set. Forget that he dropped four games in a row in one stretch. As usual, Djokovic summoned what it took to extend his Australian Open winning streak to 27 matches, the longest in the Open era, which dates to 1968.
There was a pause in that string of victories a year ago, of course, when Djokovic was deported from Australia before competition began because he was not vaccinated against COVID-19. He still has not gotten the shots, but the strict border controls established by the country during the pandemic have been eased.
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On Sunday, No. 4 seed Djokovic will take on No. 3 seed Stefanos Tsitsipas, who eliminated Karen Khachanov 7-6 (2), 6-4, 6-7 (6), 6-3 to reach his first final at Melbourne Park and second at a Slam.
Whoever wins the final will rise to No. 1 in the ATP rankings. For Djokovic, that would mark a return to a spot he has occupied for more weeks than anyone; for Tsitsipas, if would mark a debut there.
“I like that number. It’s all about you. It’s singular. It’s ‘1,’” said Tsitsipas, who was 0-3 in Australian Open semifinals before Friday. “These are the moments that I’ve been working hard for.”
Djokovic has never lost a semifinal or final in Melbourne, going a perfect 19-0, and his nine triumphs there already are a men’s record. If he can add one more to go alongside his seven titles at Wimbledon, three at the U.S. Open and two at the French Open, the 35-year-old from Serbia would equal Nadal for the most Grand Slam trophies earned by a man.
Djokovic is 10-2 against Tsitsipas, taking the last nine encounters in a row.
Tsitsipas’ other major final came at the 2021 French Open, when he grabbed the first two sets before blowing that big lead and losing to Djokovic in five.
Which was all related to an amusing moment this week, when Djokovic said about Tsitsipas: “He has never played a final, am I wrong?” Reminded by reporters about what happened at Roland Garros, Djokovic replied: “That’s right. Sorry, my bad.”
Asked about that exchange Friday, Tsitsipas responded with a deadpan expression and the words: “I don’t remember, either.”
Until this week, the 35th-ranked Paul never had been past the fourth round in 13 previous appearances at majors.
The 25-year-old was born in New Jersey and grew up in North Carolina, playing tennis at a club where the walls were festooned with posters of Andy Roddick — the last American man to win a Grand Slam singles title, way back at the 2003 U.S. Open. That drought will continue for now, because even though Djokovic was not at his best in the opening set, he was good enough at the end of it, breaking in the last game, and never relented.
The blips for Djokovic arrived right at the outset.
The footwork was not up to his usual reach-every-ball standard. The shotmaking was subpar. The serving was so-so.
He got into a bit of a discussion with the chair umpire. He started gesturing and shouting in the direction of coach Goran Ivanisevic and the rest of this entourage.
In the first game, Djokovic flubbed an overhead, a weakness he’s never solved. He dumped a backhand into the net. He double-faulted. And just like that, three minutes in, he offered up a break point to Paul. Djokovic saved that, but then another missed backhand provided another break chance to someone playing the biggest match of his life.
Djokovic saved that, too, collected that game and would race to a 5-1 lead. Then came the lull. He got broken when serving for the set there. And again at 5-3, when Paul walloped a down-the-line forehand and Djokovic’s backhand on a 29-stroke point landed out.
Paul held for 5-all. Might he be making a match of it?
Not for much longer. Djokovic, the greatest returner or his, or maybe any, generation, broke to close that set, when Paul sent a forehand wide. Serbian flags were displayed throughout the stands and Rod Laver Arena was filled with chants of Djokovic’s two-syllable nickname, “No-le! No-le!”
The contest was never much of a contest from there on out.
Tsitsipas had a harder time strictly following the rules governing the 25-second serve clock and foot-faults than he did outplaying Khachanov for nearly three full sets, then recovered after blowing two match points late in the third.
Tsitsipas regained his footing quickly, grabbing a 3-0 lead in the fourth and closing out the win about 40 minutes after his initial opportunity.
Looking ahead to Sunday, he declared: “Couldn’t be more ready for this moment.”
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