Novak Djokovic continued his successful battle through the pain barrier with victory over Alexander Zverev to reach the semi-finals of the Australian Open. The world No 1’s hopes of a ninth title in Melbourne Park have hung in the balance since he sustained an abdominal injury during his third-round win against Taylor Fritz.
After somehow winning a fifth set in that match, he struggled to a four-set victory over Milos Raonic in round four, and was forced to dig deep to pull out a 6-7 (6) 6-2 6-4 7-6 (6) success against Zverev.
Djokovic admitted after beating Raonic that trying to play through the injury was a big gamble but he appeared more comfortable off the ground here after a shaky start.
“With this kind of condition, I need time to warm up,” said Djokovic in his on-court interview. “Even though I had almost an hour prior to the match I still felt it was going to take me some time to warm up, to feel that I can rotate well. I was lucky to get that break in the 10th game. It was a close tie-break. After that I felt I started moving better, playing better.
“Down to the very last shot it was anybody’s game, it was anybody’s match, a lot of nerves out there, just a lot of pressure, and emotionally I feel a little bit drained honestly. It was a great battle, congrats to Sascha for a great tournament on a great tournament … we pushed each other to the limit.”
Djokovic fought back from a break down to push the opening set to a tie-break but it was Zverev that came out on top. This was a much more physical contest than the one against Raonic and it seemed a major blow to Djokovic’s hopes but the top seed responded like a champion by opening up a 4-0 lead in the second set.
Zverev was back on top in the early stages of the third and Djokovic destroyed his racket in a fit of anger after missing a break point to get back on serve at 1-3. Zverev served an untimely pair of double faults in his next service game and Djokovic was back level. And the Serbian seized his chance, making it five games in a row to win the set.
If that seemed the crucial twist, Zverev had other ideas, playing his best tennis of the match to break at the start of the fourth set. But again the fifth seed could not maintain his lead, missing three chances to lead 4-0 and then giving up his break.
This was turning into a match of chances lost for Zverev, and the top seed saved a set point to force another tie-break. Neither man gave an inch until Zverev missed a volley at 6-6 and Djokovic sealed victory with his 23rd ace. The 33-year-old has never lost once he has reached the semi-finals and he will be a big favourite to make another final when he takes on the qualifier Aslan Karatsev.
Earlier on, Karatsev had become the first grand slam debutant in the Open era to reach the semi-finals after beating an injured Grigor Dimitrov. Dimitrov won the first set but became increasingly hampered by a back spasm and during the third and fourth sets was struggling to serve and move around the court.
He persevered to the end but there was no doubt about the outcome as Karatsev continued one of the most remarkable grand slam runs with a 2-6 6-4 6-1 6-2 victory. The 27-year-old Russian has plied his trade in the lower reaches of the sport, never breaking into the top 100, only to come through qualifying and storm through the draw at Melbourne Park.
Karatsev said: “It’s an unbelievable feeling. It was really tough at the beginning for me to hold the nerves. I tried to find a way to play in the second set and then in the third set I saw he felt the back.”
Ranked 114 in the world, Karatsev is the lowest-ranked man to reach the semi-finals at a slam since Goran Ivanisevic won Wimbledon in 2001, and only the second qualifier to make the semi-finals in Melbourne after Bob Giltinan in 1977.