Novak Djokovic has never lost an Australian Open semifinal - and he wasn’t about to start on Thursday.
Despite a strained abdomen, Djokovic defeated Aslan Karatsev, dashing the up-and-coming Russian player’s dreams in the chase after his own.
Djokovic breezed past Karatsev to win 6-3 6-4 6-2 and advance to Sunday's final, where he will face either Daniil Medvedev or Stefanos Tsitipas, depending on who wins on Friday. (Neither the Russian Medvedev nor Greek Tsitipas have ever reached an Australian Open final before).
If he wins, Djokovic will mark his third Australian Open title in a row, and ninth overall.
But at a press conference afterwards, Djokovic made sure to voice his support - and admiration - for another tennis great: Serena Williams, who earlier that day tearfully exited her own press conference in the wake of a semi-final loss to Naomi Osaka.
"Regardless of the amount of years that you’ve played on the tour, and the experience that you have, you still feel [the pressure] on your shoulders. I can empathise with Serena and what she’s going through. She’s such an amazing champion that inspires both male and female athletes around the world, and what she has been doing, still is doing, in her age is extraordinary," said Djokovic.
Some speculated that Williams, 39, had played her final Australian Open match ever.
"I’m sure she’s disappointed, I heard she was also emotional in the press conference. Regardless of all the success that she had, I know that when you lose a big match, you’re frustrated, you’re pissed off. But I think when you see a larger picture for her, who she is, what she stands for, on and off the court, I mean, she is one of the greatest ever, no doubt, athletes, not just tennis players. I’m proud. I'm proud and honoured to be playing at the same time she does, and to see her greatness, experience her greatness, is a thrill."
But Djokovic is also focused on his own goals now. He is on his way to his 18th Grand Slam, which would help him catch up to world greats Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.
His injury hasn't stopped him from eyeing the prize.
“This is the best I’ve felt in the entire tournament. I felt great, I could swing through the ball, no pain. Best match so far. It came at the right time and I’m thrilled to feel this way,” said Djokovic, after his semi-final win.
The 33-year-old Serbian said his focus ahead of Sunday’s showdown, aside from training, is recovery.
“I have two days now. I’ll definitely train one of the next two days. Recovery is priority right now. I’m feeling the ball well, I had enough match play, so right now it’s just gathering all the necessary energy for the most important match,” said Djokovic.
Karatsev still made history, despite what is sure to have been a devastating loss on Thursday.
The 27-year-old Russian, who is No 114 in the world, became the first male player to reach the semi-finals of the Australian Open on his grand slam debut. No doubt he was planning to become the first to make it to the final, too.
Earlier, Djokovic described Karatsev as a “very strong guy physically, moves well. Has a lot of firepower from the back of the court, great backhand – the Russian school of tennis.”
"I don't believe [for] one second that Rafa or Novak are faking"
Patrick Mouratoglou, coach to 23-time Grand Slam winner Serena Williams, meanwhile shrugged off speculation that Djokovic (and Nadal, who has a back injury) is faking injury to take the pressure off of himself.
“We are talking about champions. Champions never escape pressure. Champions embrace pressure, accept pressure, and learn to deal with the pressure,” he told Tennismajors.com.
“Sometimes during the matches – during the matches – Novak plays a bit with the mind of the opponent when he’s in trouble. He has done it a lot of times in the past. When he’s down he pretends he’s giving up, he’s not really there, and then suddenly boom he plays again.
But he doesn’t fake an injury during a tournament. I don’t believe [for] one second that Rafa or Novak are faking an injury or exaggerating their injury to take the pressure off. I think they accept pressure, they deal with the pressure, and that’s why they are champions.”