Defending champion Novak Djokovic is in no mood for sentiment.
Qualifier Aslan Karatsev’s remarkable Grand Slam debut was emphatically halted 6-3 6-4 6-2 by the world No.1 on Thursday night to book his Australian Open final ticket.
Chasing an unprecedented ninth title at Melbourne Park, the top seed will “grab the popcorn” to watch Daniil Medvedev and Stefanos Tsitsipas’ semifinal ahead of his 28th major final on Sunday.
“This is the best I’ve felt in the entire tournament, I had no pain, my best match by far,” said the 17-time Grand Slam champion following his 20th straight Australian Open win. "I’m thrilled to feel this way for sure.
"I definitely had to stretch myself to the limit in the last five days, in every sense. Recovery is the priority right now. I’m feeling the ball well, I’m playing well, I’ve had enough match play. Right now it’s about gathering all the necessary energy for the most important match of the Australian Open.
“Of course it gives me more confidence knowing I haven’t lost here in finals or semifinals. But that won't be the deciding factor...both Tsitsipas and Medvedev will want their first Grand Slam title. I’m sure they’ll do their best and I’ll be ready for that.”
Almost four years ago, Karatsev was in the crowd to watch as Djokovic took on Andy Murray in the final of the 2016 ATP Finals.
Fast-forward to his breakout major, one where he’s sent all sorts of records tumbling, the 27-year-old was bidding to become the first player to reach the final on his Grand Slam bow.
Djokovic, intent on closing the gap on 20-time major champions Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, set the tone with a hold to love within a minute.
The crowd, back inside Rod Laver Arena after Melbourne’s lockdown ended, was pulling for the underdog. The current world No.114, set to rise into the top 50, smacked a special forehand cross court winner for an opening hold.
In just his 19th tour-level match, the Russian was far from intimidated, nothing was passive in his play.
Great balance and movement in a net exchange was given the thumbs-up by the defending champion.
A scorching personal-record 147km/h backhand was a signal of intent, before Djokovic’s brick wall returning clinched a decisive 5-3 break lead.
The 17-time Grand Slam champion accumulated 10 points in a row. Set one in the bag.
Djokovic would still have been wary of a case of deja vu, having fallen to world No.117 Denis Istomin (just three spots lower than Karatsev) in the second round at AO 2017.
Sling-shot returns and picking his moment to pounce with aplomb, Djokovic had the same number of unforced errors as his ranking - one - five games into the second set when he led 4-1.
Having taken out three top-20 seeds this fortnight, Karatsev wasn’t going to wilt and forced Djokovic to serve out the second set 4-5 down.
The qualifier capped an energy-zapping 32-shot rally by dinking an intricate drop shot to catch the top seed off guard. A slice of luck of return gained break point, but Djokovic’s serve has been a clutch weapon at AO 2021, an ace prompting the reigning champion to burst into a monstrous roar of “Idemo.”
Karatsev had bounced back from two sets down against Felix Auger-Aliassime this fortnight, and sparked a comeback attempt at 1-2 to break with a stick of dynamite forehand.
Djokovic instantly dismissed the threat and closed out four straight games with his 17th ace. One step away from major No.18.
Now, to check out his final opponent on TV.
“Stefanos did incredibly well to somehow to turn it around,” mused Djokovic, having caught Tsitsipas’ quarterfinal comeback to topple Rafael Nadal. “That was probably the best match of the tournament so far, such a high level.
“Speaking of high level, Medvedev is the guy, playing the highest level of anyone in the last three or four months. It’s going to be really interesting, always high intensity between them. I’m going to take the popcorn and enjoy it.”
He’s rubber-stamped his name into the all-time greats, learning this week he will overtake Federer’s record of 310 weeks atop the rankings in March.
Will he toast such a momentous achievement by notching number nine in Melbourne?