Novak Djokovic has subdued any lingering injury concerns and the run of Cinderella man Aslan Karatsev with a mighty straight-sets semi-final victory at the Australian Open.
The world number one is now eyeing off a ninth title in his happy hunting ground of Melbourne after defeating the Russian qualifier 6-3 6-4 6-2 in under two hours to book his place in Sunday’s final.
The Serb – who’s never lost on Melbourne’s plexicushion at the final four stage – hit twice as many winners than unforced errors in a showing that was a far cry from his struggles against Taylor Fritz and Alexander Zverev.
In ominous signs for his final rival – either Greece’s Stefanos Tsitsipas or Russia’s Daniil Medvedev – Djokovic said it was his first pain-free match for the tournament.
“Felt great, I could swing through the ball. No pain. Just, best match so far. It came at the right time and I’m thrilled to feel this way, for sure,” Djokovic told Nine’s Jim Courier.
Karatsev was the first men’s grand slam debutant to reach the semi-final stage in history and did not seem to be overawed by the occasion early.
He exhilarated the crowd as he traced down a Djokovic drop shot and fended off a wrong-footing attempt with a volley into the open court in his second service game, before coming close to breaking Djokovic’s serve in the next.
But Djokovic, whose reputation as the game’s best Gumby-like defender precedes him, stood up to the challenge as the Russian continued to pulverise the ball off both wings.
Despite some impressive all-court play in Djokovic’s fourth service game, the Russian – who had won eight straight matches through qualifying and the main draw – gifted some loose errors, which were enough for the world number one to clinch the opening set.
Djokovic’s exceptional return game came to the fore early in the third game of the second set.
He lunged to chip a seemingly unreachable backhand for most others and then drilled a forehand at Karatsev’s feet the following point to bring up break points, and a Russian double fault was an easy gimmie.
Djokovic continued to be unimpeded by any abdominal issues from the previous rounds as he drilled sliding backhand winners on the stretch, and the errors piled up for the Russian.
Karatsev – who came into the match boasting the fastest average speed off both wings – hit 14 winners to 18 unforced errors nearing the end of the second set as he tried to play through the Serbian brick wall.
By comparison, Djokovic was 19 and 2.
However, Karatsev turned the set on its head with inspired returning that licked the lines of the court and rifled his serve to consolidate a late break, and after a pinpoint drop shot capped off a 32-shot lungburster, the crowd sensed a turnaround could be on the cards.
But Djokovic showed the class that’s seen him hoist the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup eight times over, reeling off seven of the last nine games to close out the match.
Djokovic is aiming for his 18th grand slam win on Sunday, which would allow the Serb to close within two titles of Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer’s joint grand slam record of 20.