When Novak Djokovic was asked about world No. 114 Aslan Karatsev ahead of their surprise semifinal meeting at the Australian Open, the 17-time major champion asserted his opponent was there for a reason.
“I have seen him play during the tournament here, and he impressed me, impressed a lot of people,” he said. “He doesn't have anything to lose, really. He's motivated. I expect him to come out and really go for his shots.”
Karatsev did just that in stages of their Thursday evening encounter at Melbourne Park, going toe-to-toe with Djokovic on the baseline. But the ATP’s No. 1-ranked player has a set of gears all his own, and when Karatsev’s level dipped just enough for Djokovic to take control, the Serbian did exactly that producing a 6-3, 6-4, 6-2 victory.
"This is the best I've felt in the entire tournament. I felt great, I could swing through the ball. No pain," Djokovic, who sustained an abdominal injury in the third set of his third-round match with Taylor Fritz, told Jim Courier afterwards. "My best match so far. It came at the right time. I'm thrilled to feel this way.
"I'll definitely train one of the next two days. Recovery is the priority right now. I'm feeling the ball well."
The 33-year-old improved to 9-0 in semifinals at the Happy Slam, and will look to match that pristine record in Sunday’s final when he seeks a record-extending ninth title Down Under. Should Djokovic conquer the winner of No. 4 seed Daniil Medvedev and No. 5 seed Stefanos Tsitsipas, he’ll move to within two major titles of tying the all-time men’s record shared between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.
"Both of these guys have played on a high level. Medvedev is the guy that has played on probably the highest level the last three or four months. It's going to be interesting to see them play," Djokovic said. "It's always a very high-intensity match between the two of them. They're a very good matchup. I'm gonna take the popcorn and enjoy it."
With fans back in attendance, spectators enjoyed a strong level from both sides of the net out of the blocks. Using warmer conditions to their advantage, on a surface that several players have commented on being faster than in previous years, the forehand up the line was a notable early tactic each competitor employed to shorten points. There were no signs of nerves from Karatsev, as he showed why his ball striking, movement and comfort at the net led him to this breakthrough opportunity. After holding at 30 in the fifth game, Djokovic let out a little roar, one that foreshadowed a stretch to come.
Tsitsipas talked about finding his nirvana a night earlier, a state of mind the Greek described as simply playing and not thinking. That metaphor perfectly summed Djokovic’s display against Karatsev for the first hour: spots on serve were hit repeatedly, returns weren’t often missed and when targets flashed on the court, bullseye was the expectancy. His first set ended with nine winners, six via the ace, to just one unforced error.
Djokovic’s second set took an interesting turn, when he dropped serve at 5-2 after misfiring with four unforced errors, including his first double fault, to hand one break back. Two games later, a 40-15 lead suddenly turned into ad-out, twice. Djokovic, like he’s done so often under pressure, let his serve do the talking, and despite the dramatic close, still capped set two with a +7 differential in winners to unforced errors, anchored once again by six aces.
An incredible stab return from Djokovic resulted in a break to start the third. That didn’t deter Karatsev, who curled a pair of crosscourt forehand winners with tremendous pace en route to getting back on serve for 2-2.
Having lost seven of eight points in rallies of nine shots or longer in the previous set, the top seed ensured that trend didn’t continue, immediately breaking back by winning rallies of 10, 14 and 12 shots in succession. And from that point forward, Djokovic never departed his zone again, locking up the win in one hour and 53 minutes by finishing in style with his 16th and 17th aces of the night.
"First I want to give credit to Karatsev for a great tournament. Maybe it wasn't his day today but he had big wins and debut, first Grand Slam semifinals. Kudos for great result," Djokovic said in his press conference. "I felt as best as I felt so far in the tournament tonight. Physically, mentally, as well. I was hitting the ball very well, mixing the pace. Didn't give him the same looks at all. Always kind of kept him guessing and served well when I needed to get out of the trouble, late in the second set.
"Being in this situation before many times, I think helps kind of gather all the necessary elements for me to peak at the right time, which is happening again."
Having collected his first Top 10 win against Diego Schwartzman and maiden five-set victory over Felix Auger-Aliassime during his run to the final four, Karatsev gained considerable confidence in competing at the high level, leaving with the perspective that, "I can play with everyone." The 27-year-old Moscow native spoke about Djokovic's imposing presence on the court, and how the Serbian distinctly separates himself from those Karatsev faced in the Victorian capital.
"The difference is really big. He doesn't give you free points," Karatsev, now projected to break into the Top 45, told press. "On my serve, it's like every point you have to take, you have to play the rally. The serve [didn't] work well today, and on my service games there's always rallies. He served well all the match. Yeah, you're under pressure."
Djokovic is 17-10 lifetime on the Grand Slam final stage and has now reached seven after turning 30 (5-1). Tsitsipas is bidding for his first title match appearance at a major, while Medvedev is seeking his second (2019 US Open).