Djokovic breaks the shackles


Melbourne, February 16

Novak Djokovic smashed a racquet, sending a piece of the frame flying. Later, he plopped himself down right there at the back of the blue court, looking forlorn as can be. He dropped the opening set against Alexander Zverev, one of the young guys trying to shove aside Djokovic and the rest of the Big Three. Djokovic trailed 0-3 in the third. And 0-3 in the fourth, too, eventually even facing a set point.

Ah, but this is Djokovic we’re talking about, the ultimate competitor. And this is Djokovic at the Australian Open, where no man ever has been better. So, naturally, Djokovic pulled himself together and pulled out the victory, reaching his ninth semifinal at Melbourne Park by eliminating fifth seed Zverev 6-7(6) 6-2 6-4 7-6(6).

“I kind of regained my focus after I broke that racquet. Things started to shift a little bit for me in a positive direction,” Djokovic said in his on-court interview in Rod Laver Arena about the way he mangled his equipment by hitting it against the court three times after netting a backhand return at 3-1 in the third set. “It was a relief for me, but I wouldn’t recommend this kind of relief-channeling, if you want to call it,” Djokovic said later.

“Of course I’m not proud of that, but you go through a lot of different emotions, you go through an inner battle. Everyone is different. I have my own demons that I have to fight with.”

Djokovic is closing in on a ninth championship in Australia, which would add to his own record for a man. And an 18th Grand Slam title overall, two fewer than rivals Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.

Both men wore tape on their midsections today to help with abdominal issues; Djokovic was hurt during his third-round win against Taylor Fritz and said he hasn’t been practising as normal on his off-days.

Several leading men have been injured in Australia, and Djokovic thinks a big reason for that is the unusual circumstances of players’ needing to quarantine for two weeks upon arrival in the country because of the strict Covid-19 pandemic regulations Down Under.

“What we are seeing is not normal. It’s not what we are used to. Top players are the fittest,” the top-ranked Djokovic said after his 23-ace performance against Zverev.

What a debut

In the semifinals, Djokovic will face the surprise of the tournament: Aslan Karatsev, a 27-year-old from Russia who is ranked 114th and needed to go through qualifying rounds just to get into the main draw of a Major for the first time. “To be honest,” Djokovic said, “I haven’t seen him play at all before the Australian Open.”

No one ever had been to the final-four in his Slam debut, until Karatsev’s 2-6 6-4 6-1 6-2 elimination of No. 18 Grigor Dimitrov, who was hurt by back spasms that made tying his shoes a chore.

Dimitrov remained on court through the finish, but on Monday, injuries caused No. 9 Matteo Berrettini to withdraw before his match and No. 22 Casper Ruud to stop after the second set of his. — AP


Serena tops Halep

Serena Williams was not pleased with the way her play suddenly was slipping in the quarterfinals. After one mistake against second seed Simona Halep — who won the last time they played each other — Williams pointed at her racket strings and made a sour face, as if to indicate it wasn’t her fault. After another, Williams looked up at her guest box with palms up and asked, “What is happening?” That dismay didn’t last long. Williams recalibrated her shots with the help of terrific footwork, overcame 33 unforced errors and claimed the last five games, beating Halep 6-3 6-3 to return to the final-four at Melbourne Park for the first time since she won the tournament in 2017. “I just realised I was making a lot of unforced errors in those games that I lost. And I knew that I had an opportunity to play better,” said Williams, now two wins away from claiming her record-tying 24th Major title. She set up a showdown against No. 3 Naomi Osaka, a three-time Slam champ who will carry a 19-match winning streak into Thursday’s semifinals. Osaka overpowered 71st-ranked Hsieh Su-wei of Taiwan 6-2 6-2, helped by serves that reached 196kmph. AP



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