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Novak Djokovic Advances in Australian Open Beating Tommy Paul, Set to Face Stefanos Tsitsipas

Novak Djokovic (Photo: PA Media)

Among Novak Djokovic’s many remarkable talents, his ability to overcome any obstacle might be the most valuable.

Despite potential distractions like his father’s decision to stay away from Rod Laver Arena for Djokovic’s semifinal against unseeded American Tommy Paul at the Australian Open on Friday, a heavily taped left hamstring that troubled him last week, and the physical nature of the points against Paul, Djokovic remained unfazed.

Even when he produced twice as many unforced errors (24) as winners (12) in the opening set, experienced a lull where he lost four consecutive games to Paul, and had a brief back-and-forth with the chair umpire, Djokovic’s resilience shone through.

Simply put, Djokovic does not lose semifinals or finals at Melbourne Park. So, it was no surprise that he overcame his early shaky play and dominated the match, defeating Paul 7-5, 6-1, 6-2 to edge closer to a 10th Australian Open title and his 22nd Grand Slam title.

“I’m really thankful that I still have enough gas in my legs to be able to play at this level,” said Djokovic, a 35-year-old from Serbia.

“Some long rallies, you could really feel them. We both had heavy legs in the first set. I was really fortunate to kind of hold my nerves toward the end of the first set. That was a key. After that, I started swinging through the ball more.”

Djokovic extended his Australian Open winning streak to 27 matches, the longest in the Open era, dating back to 1968.

There was a pause in that streak last year when Djokovic was deported from Australia before the competition began because he was not vaccinated against COVID-19. He still has not been vaccinated, but Australia’s strict border controls have since been eased.

“Of course, it’s not pleasant for me to go through this with all the things that I had to deal with last year and this year in Australia.

It’s not something that I want or need,” said Djokovic, defending his father, Srdjan, who stood with a group of people waving Russian flags — at least one showing an image of Vladimir Putin — after his quarterfinal victory against a Russian opponent. “I hope that people will let it be and we can focus on tennis.”

On Sunday, No. 4 seed Djokovic will face No. 3 seed Stefanos Tsitsipas, who defeated Karen Khachanov 7-6 (2), 6-4, 6-7 (6), 6-3 to reach his first final at Melbourne Park and second at a Slam.

Whoever wins the final will become No. 1 in the ATP rankings. For Djokovic, this would mark a return to a spot he has held for more weeks than anyone; for Tsitsipas, it would be his debut there.

“I like that number. It’s all about you. It’s singular. It’s 1,” said Tsitsipas, who was 0-3 in Australian Open semifinals before Friday. “These are the moments that I’ve been working hard for.”

Djokovic is now a perfect 19-0 in the last two rounds in Melbourne, and his nine titles there already set a men’s record.

If he wins another, adding to his seven Wimbledon, three US Open, and two French Open titles, Djokovic would tie Rafael Nadal for the most Grand Slam trophies won by a man.

Novak Djokovic and Stefanos Tsitsipas (Photo: PA Media)

“Winning Grand Slams and being the No. 1 in the world are probably the two biggest peaks that you can climb as a professional tennis player,” said Djokovic, who holds a 10-2 record against Tsitsipas, having won their last nine encounters. “So let’s see what happens.”

Novak Djokovic ended the unexpected run of unseeded American Tommy Paul and will now compete for a record-extending 10th Australian Open title.

Tsitsipas’ other major final came at the 2021 French Open, where he took the first two sets but then lost to Djokovic in five.

This week, when Djokovic mentioned that Tsitsipas “has never played a final, am I wrong?” and was reminded of the 2021 French Open by reporters, he replied: “That’s right. Sorry, my bad.”

Asked about this exchange, Tsitsipas responded with a deadpan expression: “I don’t remember either.”

Until this week, 35th-ranked Paul had never advanced past the fourth round in 13 previous major appearances.

The 25-year-old, born in New Jersey and raised in North Carolina, played tennis at a club adorned with posters of Andy Roddick — the last American man to win a Grand Slam singles title at the 2003 US Open.

That drought will continue for now, as Djokovic, despite a less-than-perfect opening set, was good enough to break in the final game and never looked back.

“He didn’t really let me execute any game plan that I wanted to do,” Paul said.

Djokovic’s initial blips included subpar footwork, mediocre shot-making, and average serving. He gestured and shouted towards his coach Goran Ivanisevic and his entourage.

Despite this, he managed a 5-1 lead, only to be broken when serving for the set, and again at 5-3, when Paul hit a forehand down the line and Djokovic’s backhand missed on a 29-stroke point. Paul held for 5-all.

Could Paul make a match of it? Not for long. Djokovic, arguably the best returner of his generation, broke to close the set when Paul sent a forehand wide. Serbian flags filled the stands, and Rod Laver Arena resonated with chants of “No-le! No-le!”

From then on, the match was hardly contested.

“Playing the match and getting beaten like that kind of sucked,” Paul said. “But it’s great I got to see the level of where I want to be and know how good I have to play if I want to beat people like that. It was a good experience.”

Tsitsipas faced more difficulty adhering to the 25-second serve clock and avoiding foot faults than he did outplaying Khachanov for nearly three sets.

After squandering two match points in the third set, he recovered quickly, going up 3-0 in the fourth and closing out the win about 40 minutes after his initial opportunity.

Looking ahead to Sunday, Tsitsipas declared: “Couldn’t be more ready for this moment.”

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