Of all of his considerable talents, Novak Djokovic’s ability to cast aside whatever appears to stand in his way might be the most valuable.
So forget about the potential distraction of his father’s decision to stay away from Rod Laver Arena for Djokovic’s semi-final against unseeded American Tommy Paul at the Australian Open on Friday after getting caught up in a flap over being seen with a group waving banned Russian flags at the tournament. Forget about the heavily taped left hamstring that was an issue for Djokovic last week. Forget about just how physical the points were against Paul. Forget about how Djokovic produced twice as many unforced errors, 24, as winners, 12, in the opening set. Forget about the lull of four games in a row that went to Paul. Forget about the brief back-and-forth with the chair umpire.
And remember this: Djokovic simply does not lose semi-finals or finals at Melbourne Park. Does. Not. Lose. And so, not surprisingly, he overcame some shaky play in the early going and took over the match, beating Paul 7-5, 6-1, 6-2 to close in on a 10th Australian Open championship and 22nd Grand Slam title overall.
From 5-all in the first set, Djokovic claimed seven games in a row and 14 of the last 17.
“I’m really thankful that I still have enough gas in my legs to able to play at this level,” said Djokovic, a 35-year-old from Serbia. “Some long rallies, you could really feel them. We both had heavy legs in the first set. I was really fortunate to kind of hold my nerves toward the end of the first set. That was a key. After that, I started swinging through the ball more.”
He extended 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.
“Of course, it’s not pleasant for me to go through this with all the things that I had to deal with last year and this year in Australia. It’s not something that I want or need,” said Djokovic, who defended his father, Srdjan, for standing with a group of people waving Russian flags – at least one showing an image of Vladimir Putin – after the son’s quarter-final victory against a Russian opponent.
“I hope that people will let it be,” Djokovic said, “and we can focus on tennis.”
That is what the No. 4-seeded Djokovic himself will hope to do Sunday when he takes 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 semi-finals before Friday. “These are the moments that I’ve been working hard for.”
Djokovic is now a perfect 19-0 over the last two rounds in Melbourne, 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, Djokovic would equal Nadal for the most Grand Slam trophies earned by a man.
“Winning Grand Slams and being the No. 1 in the world is probably the two biggest peaks that you can climb as a professional tennis player,” said Djokovic, who is 10-2 against Tsitsipas, taking the last nine encounters in a row. “So let’s see what happens.”
Tsitsipas’s 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, 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.
“He didn’t really let me execute any game plan that I wanted to do,” Paul said.
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 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. Still, he overcame that to get off to a 5-1 lead. Then came a quick switch in direction.
Djokovic 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 the air 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.