Defending champion Novak Djokovic ruled the 50th instalment of his rivalry with Roger Federer 7-6(1) 6-4 6-3 to book an eighth Australian Open final on Thursday night.
The world No.2, who hasn’t lost in Grand Slam action to Federer since Wimbledon 2012, improved his record to 27-23 facing the Swiss.
The 16-time major champion has only surrendered one set at AO2020 en route to Sunday’s final, where he will meet either Dominic Thiem or Alexander Zverev.
“It definitely could have gone a different way, because he started really well and I was pretty nervous in the beginning,” admitted Djokovic, before paying tribute to his physically hampered opponent.
“Respect to Roger for coming out tonight. He was obviously hurt. He wasn’t even close to his best in terms of movement, and respect for coming out and trying his best throughout.
“It wasn’t the right mindset from my side. I was looking more at how he was moving, what he was doing, rather than executing my shots in the right way. It resulted being 1-4, 0-40 down. I managed to dig my way back and it was very important to win that first set. After that I relaxed a bit mentally and could swing through the ball a bit more.”
The majority of the talk prior to the match was how Federer would fare physically after groin problems in a gruelling quarterfinal, where the six-time Melbourne Park champion managed to fend off seven match points from world No.100 Tennys Sandgren.
The Swiss was under pressure from the very first ball, but an ace and clever use of the inside-out forehand chalked up a morale-boosting opening hold.
From there Federer clicked into gear, with pin-point serving and an audacious flicked backhand pass down the line igniting an immediate break.
Suddenly Federer was 5-2 up following a 61-second hold, but the defending champion responded in typical fashion.
Djokovic was prolonging the rallies and his depth on shot was causing havoc over the other side of the net. Federer’s lead was swiftly erased for five apiece.
The Swiss catapulted his 25th winner of the set down the line off the backhand wing, but Djokovic stood firm and forced a tiebreak.
He scooped an astonishing backhand drop shot from outside the court over the net post to set the tone, clenching his fist towards his increasingly vocal fan base. Playing a clean collection of rallies, in lockdown without surrendering any cheap points, Djokovic was soon in command, one set up.
“Obviously with Roger, you have to expect a very high level of tennis and that he’s going to be very aggressive,” Djokovic said.
“He’s going to come more to the net, mix it up, play short slice, place me under constant pressure, play some serve and volley. Obviously I’m not as natural as he is in those varieties in the game.
“I tried to stay with him in the rally, move him around and not make too many unforced errors.”
Federer was eagerly searching for ways to dent the Djokovic armour in the second set, sneaking in for a few chip and charges on second return, but the Serbian was reacting to the versatility with ruthless efficiency.
At 5-4, the world No.2 asserted his dominance, picking off Federer at the net prior to chasing down a volley and pinging a hot angled forehand past the Swiss. The defending champion spun around and roared towards his team with a two-set lead in the bag.
Federer was still probing, accelerating through his shots, hoping to rebuild and pull off another miracle comeback. The problem was Djokovic simply wasn’t missing.
A beautifully curated inside-out forehand brushed the line for a 4-2 break, and by this time Djokovic had only misfired with two unforced errors in the third set.
Straightforward in straight sets against the 20-time Grand Slam champion, a relentless Djokovic is just one match away from mission accomplished once again in Melbourne.
“Patience,” stated the No.2 seed, reflecting on his journey from a Next Gen star to a 16-time major winner.
“When you’re young, you want everything right away and there is no waiting. You dream of becoming a top player. Dominic Thiem and Alex Zverev are some of the best young players that play this game and definitely have high goals and ambitions.
“They definitely have the potential to be there, but I think one thing I lacked when I was younger was patience and not trusting the process more. I was rushing a little bit too much, getting frustrated by small details in life. That’s how you learn.”
Over to Thiem and Zverev to portray their patience.
“Dominic won our last match we played against each other, a close one in London (ATP Finals). He played a terrific match against Rafa (Nadal) last night. I watched that. Definitely one of the best players in the world. Deserves to be where he is,” analysed Djokovic, looking ahead to his potential final opponent.
“Alex didn't start the year very well. I watched his matches. I practiced with him in Brisbane during ATP Cup. He wasn't feeling his best on the court, not much confidence.
“It's impressive with the way he has been playing so far in this tournament, building his game, raising the level of tennis that he's been playing.
“It's his first semifinals of Grand Slam in his career, so I'm sure that he is motivated, he's pumped to get at least a step further. It's going to be really a good match to watch.”