World No. 1 Novak Djokovic’s path to this year's Australian Open semifinals hasn't been his easiest. After going five sets with American No. 2 Taylor Fritz in the third round, Djokovic was required to beat a pair of former No. 3s, grinding out four-set wins over 2016 Wimbledon finalist Milos Raonic in the round of 16 (a player he's now 12-0 against) and 2020 US Open finalist Alexander Zverev in the quarters.
Next up… a No. 114-ranked Russian qualifier playing in his first major.
“I have not seen him play, honestly, before the Australian Open,” Djokovic said of Aslan Karatsev, who’s not only the first man to reach the semifinals of a Grand Slam as a qualifier in more than 20 years, but also the first man in the Open Era to reach the semis in his main draw debut at a major.
“I have seen him play during the tournament here, and he impressed me, impressed a lot of people," the Serb continued. "His movement, his firepower from the baseline. Flat backhand, Russian school, great backhand. Looks to run around. Also hits some good forehands, dictate the play. And he is impressive—I mean, two sets down against Felix [Auger-Aliassime], coming back. Today he was very solid against Grigor [Dimitrov]. But he’s there for a reason, and I congratulate him for great success.
“It’s going to be our first encounter. Hoping I can be physically fit, and looking forward to it.”
Karatsev’s wins over No. 9 Diego Schwartzman, No. 19 Auger-Aliassime and No. 21 Dimitrov in the last three rounds have been the biggest wins of his career. The 27-year-old had never even beaten anyone in the Top 40 before this tournament, and Schwartzman was the first Top 10 player he had ever faced.
But could the experience gap with Djokovic be too much for the Russian?
Djokovic will be playing his 39th career Grand Slam semifinal, and his ninth here at the Australian Open. Even more daunting? He’s a combined 16-0 in semifinals and finals at Melbourne Park.
Karatsev had never been to a tour-level quarterfinal before his big run Down Under.
Djokovic’s win over Raonic in the fourth round was his 300th career win at a Grand Slam, making him just the fourth player in the Open Era, male or female, to hit that milestone, after Martina Navratilova, Roger Federer and Serena Williams. His win over Zverev improved his overall record to 301-45.
Karatsev came into the Australian Open just 3-10 in his career at tour-level, and 0-0 at majors.
Djokovic has taken the court against Top 10 players 317 times in his career, winning 217 of those encounters. Karatsev has never played anyone in the Top 8, let alone a No. 1 on his best court.
But the experience gap against Schwartzman, Auger-Aliassime and Dimitrov didn’t seem to stop the Russian, so why would it get in his way against Djokovic?
Even Djokovic knows it won’t be easy.
“He doesn’t have anything to lose, really,” the 17-time major winner said. “He’s motivated. I expect him to come out and really go for his shots, and try his best and try to take that win.
“I’m sure he’s enjoyed his Australian Open.”