Novak Djokovic has won eight Australian Open titles but will step into unknown territory today when he faces a Russian qualifier “with nothing to lose” in the first men’s semi-final.
The world number one, who has been hampered by an abdominal injury, confessed that he had not seen much of tournament surprise Aslan Karatsev, but what little he did know convinced him not to take the world number 114 lightly.
“He’s impressed a lot of people with his movement and firepower from the baseline,” said Djokovic – who is trying to win major number 18 – of an opponent who has only played 18 Grand Slam sets.
“He has a flat backhand, Russian school. Great backhand. Looks to run around and also hits some good forehands to dictate the play,” added Djokovic. “He doesn’t have anything to lose, really. He’s motivated.”
Djokovic has been battling an injury picked up in the third round, but the 33-year-old Serb semi-final will still be expected to have little trouble against the 27-year-old, who was virtually unknown before his dream-like run to the last four.
Karatsev, who is guaranteed to rise into the world’s top 50, became the first man in the Open era to reach a semi-final on his Grand Slam debut, and just the second qualifier to do so at the Australian Open after Bob Giltinan in 1977.
He was also the lowest-ranked man to make the semis at a Slam since Goran Ivanisevic was ranked 125 at Wimbledon in 2001.
Karatsev, whose incredible run includes wins over eighth seed Diego Schwartzmann, 20th seed Felix Auger-Aliassime, and 18th seed Grigor Dimitrov, faces the ultimate test against Djokovic.
The pair has never played before, with Djokovic admitting he knew little of journeyman Karatsev, who spent a chunk of his youth in Israel, Germany and Spain and had failed on his nine previous attempts to qualify for a Grand Slam tournament.
The Serbian great suffered his abdominal injury in the last-32 clash against Taylor Fritz, but battled back with the help of painkillers to win in five sets.
His injury has improved but he was hampered early in the quarter-final against Alexander Zverev, taking his frustrations out by smashing his racquet, before regaining his composure to power past the sixth seed in four sets.
Djokovic has won 19 straight matches at the Australian Open, but Karatsev is undaunted saying he is loving the attention and his deep run in the tournament, having emerged from virtually nowhere.
“I got around 200 messages on WhatsApp. I think it’s going to be more,” Karatsev said after beating Dimitrov in the quarter-finals. “Of course, it’s amazing making the semi-final from qualifying. I’m just trying to enjoy the moment and play round-to-round.”
‘COOL CAT’ OSAKA
Serena Williams knows she must raise another level against “cool cat” Naomi Osaka to keep alive her dream of a record-equaling 24th Grand Slam crown, wary of again falling victim to the Japanese superstar.
The pair meets in a blockbuster Australian Open semi-final today with the winner facing either Czech 25th seed Karolina Muchova, or American 22nd seed Jennifer Brady in Saturday’s decider.
Williams, 39, continues to chase Margaret Court’s elusive all-time mark of 24 major titles, after losing four Slam finals since her 2017 victory at Melbourne Park while pregnant.
One of those was her controversial 2018 US Open final defeat to Osaka, where the American star was docked a point and a game after losing her temper when warned about coaching.
Osaka was booed by some fans and was in tears during the awards ceremony, later calling what should have been her moment of glory “a little bittersweet”.
Williams said both players had reached “closure” on the painful moment, which has seen them inextricably linked ever since.
They have played each other just once since that New York meeting, in the quarter-finals of the 2019 Canadian Open which Williams won in straight sets.
If she can get past third seed Osaka, Williams may never have a better chance to finally seal her 24th title after world number one Ashleigh Barty was upset by Muchova in the last eight on the other side of the draw.
Instead, she would face either the Czech or Brady, neither of whom have made a Slam final – in comparison with the 33 played by Williams, who has been in vintage form so far this year.
But first up is Osaka, and 10th seed Williams is taking nothing for granted.
Osaka, who swept past Taiwanese veteran Hsieh Su-wei to set up the meeting, is eager to add to her three Grand Slam titles after her wins at Flushing Meadows in 2018 and last year, and Melbourne in 2019.
And despite beating Williams in the 2018 US Open final, the 23-year-old admitted to still feeling “really intimidated when I see her on the other side of the court”.
“She’s Serena,” she explained.
Brady will face Muchova in the other semi-final, with a maiden Slam final guaranteed for one of them.
Muchova, fresh from her upset of Barty, said she had noted her “very big strokes, fast ones” in their one previous meeting, when she beat the American in Prague in 2019. “So definitely going to be a tough battle,” she said of Brady, who toppled compatriot Jessica Pegula to make her second major semi-final, after last year’s US Open.*AFP