MELBOURNE: A rampant Novak Djokovic surged into a 10th Australian Open final Friday to close in on a record-equalling 22nd Grand Slam crown, with only Stefanos Tsitsipas now standing in his way.
The Serbian fourth seed overcame an early wobble to romp past unseeded American Tommy Paul 7-5, 6-1, 6-2 on Rod Laver Arena in style.
Another title on Sunday will move him alongside Rafael Nadal with 22 Slam wins and see the 35-year-old return to world number one for the first time since last June.
Greek third seed Tsitsipas, who ground past Russian 18th seed Karen Khachanov 7-6 (7/2), 6-4, 6-7 (6/8), 6-3 in the other semi-final, can also become the top-ranked player should he lift the trophy.
Djokovic played the clash without father Srdjan courtside after he was filmed posing with a man holding a Russian flag featuring Vladimir Putin’s face following his son’s quarter-final win on Wednesday.
The incident sparked a backlash from Ukraine and led to calls for Djokovic’s father to be banned from the tournament.
Srdjan issued a statement ahead of the semi-final saying he would stay away, insisting he “wishes only for peace” and never wanted to cause “disruption”.
There was an empty seat next to his mother Dijana during the match.
“I’m really thankful that I have enough gas in my legs to be able to play at this level on one of the biggest tennis courts in the world,” said Djokovic, who is now 11-0 for the season and into a 33rd Grand Slam final.
“Of course, I’m not as fresh as the beginning of the tournament but we put in a lot of hours in the off-season on fitness in order to be in a good condition to play best of five (sets).
“I know what’s expected of me, I’ve been in this situation so many times in my career. Experience helps also,” he added of being in another final.
The win extended his unbeaten streak at the Australian Open to 27 matches to claim sole ownership of the Open-era record at Melbourne Park ahead of Andre Agassi.
Djokovic had never played Paul before and said he was wary of a “very explosive, very dynamic player”, with the American initially refusing to go quietly.
The Serb, a hot favourite, attacked his opponent’s straight away for an early break, then broke again when the 35th-ranked Paul fired a forehand long to race 5-1 in front.
A run-in with the umpire over using his towel between points seemed to rattle Djokovic and he was broken twice in a row as Paul came surging back to 5-5.
Djokovic regrouped to hold serve and break again and take the set in 59 minutes.
After that wobble, it was all business, despite clutching his strapped hamstring several times, romping through the next two sets with minimal resistence.
He will meet Tsitsipas next after the Greek battled into his first Australian final and only second at a Grand Slam.
In the previous one, at Roland Garros in 2021, he fell to Djokovic in five sets after holding a 2-0 lead.
At 24, Tsitsipas is the youngest man to reach the Melbourne final since a 23-year-old Djokovic in 2011.
“I dreamed as a kid to maybe one day get to play in this court against the best players in the world,” said Tsitsipas, who is also unbeaten this season with a 10-0 record.
“I’m extremely happy that I’m in the final now and let’s see what happens.”
Tsitsipas has thrived in Melbourne throughout his career after bursting on the scene at the 2019 event as a 20-year-old when he dethroned defending champion Roger Federer in the last 16.
He went on to reach the semi-finals that year and again in 2021 and 2022.
He came into his clash with Khachanov brimming with confidence.
Despite failing to get over the line when serving for the match at 5-4 in the third set, then with two match points in the tiebreak, he kept his cool to secure the win and a date with Djokovic.
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