Unsurprisingly, given the 113-place gap between them in the rankings, Novak Djokovic entered his semifinal clash with Aslan Karatsev as the overwhelming favourite. Indeed, the difference between their respective levels of experience could hardly have been more stark. Where Djokovic was playing in his 39th Grand Slam semifinal and seeking his 942nd win at tour-level, five of Karatsev’s eight wins on the ATP Tour coming into the match had been earned reaching the last four at the Australian Open.
Still, the Russian had been making light of his lowly ranking and lack of experience throughout the fortnight at Melbourne Park. Every player he had beaten en route to his showdown with Djokovic had been ranked above him, from the 96th-ranked Gianluca Mager who he beat in the first round to the eighth seed Diego Schwartzman, who he crushed in straight sets in the round of 32. And Djokovic, for all his pedigree, had not been at his imperious best after straining his abdomen in the third round.
Perhaps feeding off the uncertainty surrounding the great Serbian’s fitness, Karatsev started the match in fine fashion, matching Djokovic from the baseline, for the most part at least, and landing one particularly impressive forehand winner on the run. In the sixth game of the match, the qualifier’s concentration look to be wavering, with a double fault that was followed by a forced error on the backhand side giving Djokovic an opening.
But Karatsev rallied impressively, driving Djokovic back beyond the baseline with some heavy hitting, including a backhand that was the fastest he had ever hit, to secure the hold and pass the first test set by the world #1. But when Djokovic took a 0-30 lead in Karatsev’s next service game, the Russian was unable to escape. A backhand sent well beyond the baseline gave the Serbian three break points and another errant backhand gave up the break to give Djokovic the chance to serve for the set.
It was not an opportunity the eight-time champion passed up. He served the set out to love, finishing it with an ace, giving Karatsev a sharp introduction to the fine margins that decide matches at this level. Indeed, having held in impressive fashion from 0-30 down in the sixth game, the Russian managed just one more point. In short, Djokovic, having weathered the early storm, went up a gear and Karatsev wasn’t able to stay with him.
Karatsev did respond with a hold to love, but Djokovic was beginning to turn the screw. Particularly concerning for the world #114 was the ease with which Djokovic was winning points against his second serve. In the third game of the second set, Karatsev found himself staring down the barrel of three more break points and he handed the break to his opponent with a double fault. In his next service game, he was broken to love again.
Djokovic, who after fourteen games had made just one unforced error, was in complete control and whilst Karatsev showed some flashes of the brilliance that had taken him to the semifinals, the tide of the match was running swiftly against him. Karatsev did eventually stop the rot, staging a late rally by holding in the seventh game of the set before breaking Djokovic’s serve for the first time in the match. But it proved to be a brief respite for Karatsev.
At the second time of asking, Djokovic was able to serve out the set, although not without some difficulty, to take what looked like an unassailable lead. There were still reasons for Karatsev to be hopeful, not least his victory from two-sets down against Felix Auger-Aliassime in the fourth round and his late fightback in the second set against Djokovic. But, in truth, he had faced the best that Djokovic had to offer, or at least something very close to it, and like so many before him, he had been found wanting.
The mountain grew higher still for Karatsev when Djokovic broke to love again to start the third set, a break he backed up with a comfortable hold. Karatsev, refusing to go quietly into the night, battled valiantly to stay in touch with the world #1 in the third, crashing two forehand winners beyond the Serbian and recover the break. But he proved unable to sustain that level. Djokovic continued to make alarming in-roads against his serve and reasserting himself with another break immediately.
From there, the end came swiftly. Djokovic backed up the break, before breaking again with Karatsev unable to control a forehand under pressure, flashing it wide into the tramlines to all bit end his challenge. Djokovic punched the air in celebration and Karatsev walked back to his chair, for the first time in the match looking every inch a beaten man. A double fault did mar Djokovic’s attempt to serve out the match, but there was none of the drama that marked the end of the second as he wrapped up a 6-3 6-4 6-2 win.
The Serbian will now look to maintain his perfect record in Australian Open finals, where he will be playing for his ninth title at Melbourne Park and his 18th Major title overall. For Karatsev, defeat marked the end of a fairytale run that few could have predicted at the start of the tournament, but also most likely the start of a new chapter. He will find himself a top 50 player when the rankings are updated and has a golden opportunity to establish himself as a tour-level regular.
Still, the focus now is on Djokovic, as it so often is in the last stages at the Australian Open. And whilst he may not have been at his very best throughout his semifinal win, he was able to summon a formidable level of tennis when he needed to. Both Stefanos Tsitsipas and Daniil Medvedev, who will meet in the other men’s singles semifinal, will believe that they can beat him. But based on the evidence of today, that will take some doing.
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