Novak Djokovic keeps perfect record in Australian Open semifinals

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MELBOURNE, Australia — Novak Djokovic had a perfect record in Australian Open semifinals, and he was playing almost flawless tennis to protect it.

It didn’t matter that across the net was Aslan Karatsev, a 114th-ranked, 27-year-old Russian who had come through qualifying to make his debut in a Grand Slam tournament after nine failed attempts.

Djokovic made only one unforced error in more than 50 minutes.

It was tight for the first seven games – before Djokovic reeled off eight straight points to win the first set – and again when Karatsev went on an all-or-nothing roll late in the second set.

Sensing a shift in support for the underdog – there was a loud, vocal crowd at Rod Laver Arena after a five-day span when fans were barred during a local COVID-19 outbreak – Djokovic moved up a gear and finished off his opponent 6-3, 6-4, 6-2.

He’s now 9-0 in semifinals at the season-opening major, and one win from a ninth Australian title.

“The more I win, the better I feel coming back,” the top-ranked Djokovic said. “The love affair continues.”

Djokovic will have a day off Friday when No. 4 Daniil Medvedev and No. 5 Stefanos Tsitsipas, who is coming off a five-set win over Rafael Nadal, meet in the other semifinal. He said he’d have a rest and get the popcorn ready to watch and see who he gets to face in Sunday’s final.

Given his past success in Melbourne, Djokovic should feel confident going into another championship match. He already owns an all-time record eight Australian titles, and he’s aiming for an 18th major title, which would reduce the gap to Roger Federer and Nadal, who share the men’s record at 20.

The 33-year-old Serb also is aiming to be only the second man to win nine or more titles at one of the four Grand Slams. Nadal has 13 at Roland Garros. Djokovic, in Australia, and Federer, with eight at Wimbledon, currently share second place.

“Recovery is the priority right now,” Djokovic said. “I’ve had enough match play, enough practice.

“Right now it’s just gathering all the necessary energy for the most important match of the Australian Open.”

Djokovic has played and beaten the likes of Federer – four times – Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka in the semifinals at Melbourne Park and was bringing that kind of game against Karatsev right up until he was serving for the second set.

Then the Russian qualifier lifted his game, as he did in wins over three seeded players as he became the first man in the professional era to reach the semifinals in his debut at a major.

After a difficult hold in the seventh game, Karatsev broke Djokovic’s serve for the first time in the match and then narrowed the gap to 5-4.

Djokovic regathered his composure to earn two set points but again got tight, losing them with a forehand long and a netted attempted drop shot at the end of a 32-shot exchange.

He had to save break points before getting another go. So when Karatsev shanked a forehand, Djokovic leaped as he punched the air and went back to his changeover chair yelling, “Yeah, Yeah, Yeah.”

The crowd was back on his side, chanting his nickname: “Nole, Nole, Nole, Nole.”

He broke to open the third set and again twice more to finish off.

After the win, Djokovic said Karatsev deserved plenty of praise for his amazing major breakthrough. Karatsev will move into the Top 50 for the first time next week, meaning he won’t have to go through qualifying for the majors.

“It’s given me more confidence – I’ve started to believe more,” Karatsev said of his run.

The biggest thing he’s learned in Melbourne, he added, is “that I can play with everyone – to be there, to compete with everyone.”

And that goes right to the top.

Djokovic has been bothered by an abdominal muscle problem since the third round. He initially said it was a tear, but has since refused to talk about the details until after the tournament.

After his win over Karatsev, he said it’s “the best as I’ve felt the entire tournament.”

“I felt great. I could swing through the ball. No pain. Best match so far,” Djokovic said. “It came at the right time. I’m thrilled to feel this way.”

Top-ranked Swiatek, Kvitova reach quarters at Agel Open

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OSTRAVA, Czech Republic – Top-ranked Iga Swiatek advanced to the quarterfinals of the Agel Open after Ajla Tomljanovic retired with an injury during the second set of their second-round match on Wednesday.

The Polish U.S. Open champion was leading 7-5, 2-2 when her Australian opponent retired due to a left knee injury at the indoor hardcourt event in the eastern Czech city of Ostrava.

Swiatek, who also won the French Open in June, will next face American qualifier Catherine McNally or Karolina Muchova.

Home favorite and two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova upset second-seeded Paula Badosa of Spain 7-6 (4), 6-4 to set up a quarterfinal against this year’s Wimbledon winner Elena Rybakina, who rallied to eliminate Aliaksandra Sasnovich 6-7 (5), 6-4, 7-5.

Czech players also won the last two first-round matches on the schedule.

Muchova knocked out seventh-seeded Beatriz Haddad Maia of Brazil 6-4, 6-4 and Barbora Krejcikova ousted American Shelby Rogers 6-2, 6-2 for her sixth straight victory after she won the Tallinn Open on Sunday for her first WTA title of the year.

Djokovic near flawless to reach second round in Astana

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ASTANA, Kazakhstan – Novak Djokovic delivered a near-flawless performance to ease into the second round of the Astana Open with a 6-1, 6-1 win over Cristian Garin on Wednesday as he goes for a third straight tournament title.

Djokovic dropped just six points on his serve and won the last five games to seal the win in just 62 minutes.

Djokovic is coming off a victory in Tel Aviv last week and – aside from a match at the Laver Cup – the Wimbledon champion hasn’t lost since the French Open quarterfinals.

“From the start to the end, (it was) a great performance,” Djokovic said. “Playing in a new tournament, different conditions, the first match is never easy. Obviously you are looking to see how you are going to adapt, but I did it perfectly, really, played as well as I can.”

Djokovic will next play Botic van de Zandschulp.

Top-ranked Carlos Alcaraz lost in the opening round on Tuesday in his first match since winning the U.S. Open title to capture the No. 1 spot.

Stefanos Tsitsipas reached the quarterfinals by beating 19-year-old Luca Nardi of Italy 7-6 (2), 7-6 (3). Nardi was playing just his fifth tour-level main-draw match and impressed the third-seeded Greek, who didn’t earn a single break point.

“He’s a player that can play very well in the future,” Tsitsipas said. “There weren’t any holes. I believe today he was able to sustain that level from the beginning to end, and that was extremely impressive.”

Roberto Bautista Agut also reached the quarterfinals as he followed up his first-round upset of Felix Auger-Aliassime by beating Pavel Kotov 6-1, 7-6 (5).

Marin Cilic, who lost the Tel Aviv final to Djokovic, had to come from behind to beat Oscar Otte 5-7, 7-6 (4), 6-2 in the first round to set up a round-of-16 match against Karen Khachanov.