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Report: Djokovic into 10th AO decider after stalling Paul

  • Ravi Ubha

Men's singles semifinals

Novak Djokovic stayed perfect in Australian Open semifinals, beating Tommy Paul in straight sets on Friday night to make a record-extending 10th men's final at Melbourne Park. 

MORE: All the scores from Day 12 at AO 2023

Djokovic overcame an early hiccup on a humid night at Rod Laver Arena before advancing 7-5 6-1 6-2 past the American, who contested his maiden Grand Slam semifinal. 

Going deep at majors is nothing new for Djokovic. 

Already the leader among the men, Sunday against Stefanos Tsitsipas marks his 33rd Grand Slam final to equal Serena Williams for second on the all-time leaderboard. 

If Djokovic continues his trend of never losing an Australian Open final, he also collects a 22nd major to equal fellow "Big Three" stalwart Rafael Nadal. 

"I respect (Tsitsipas) a lot," Djokovic told Jim Courier on court afterward. "He has improved over the years. I actually think he is one of the most interesting guys off the tour, with his interests off the court, his hairstyle and all, but it's all business on Sunday for both of us. 

"Let the better player win."

The build-up

Djokovic entered the last four buoyed by convincing victories over Alex de Minaur and Andrey Rublev.

And by the state of his left hamstring, too. 

He wasn't about to over-celebrate, however, as it related to the injury he picked up at the Adelaide International in early January. But compared to the first week of AO 23, he said it felt better. 

Djokovic's run to the final four wasn't without discomfort (Getty Images)

In a strong AO 23 for Americans, Paul led the way to reach a first Grand Slam quarterfinal, then semi. 

MORE: AO 2023 men's singles draw

He grounded out wins in four and five sets over Spaniards Roberto Bautista Agut and Alejandro Davidovich Fokina, respectively, before pushing past big-serving upstart Ben Shelton. 

Even before Friday's semi, Paul had enjoyed a stellar fortnight in Melbourne (Getty Images)

All this after changing racquets in the off-season, never an easy to choice to make.  

Indeed, with his previous racquet last year, he topped the likes of two other Spaniards, Nadal and Carlos Alcaraz. 

Story of the match

How Paul would have loved an early break to work himself into the contest; he almost got it.  

But facing two break chances at the outset, two terrific Djokovic first serves helped the Serb hold. 

It was damaging to Paul and seemed impossible to overturn when he trailed 5-1 and was a point away from losing the first set. 

A discussion with chair umpire Damien Dumusois – centring on the time between points – may have unsettled Djokovic. He was broken. 

Even more remarkable, Paul got back on serve when he outlasted Djokovic in a 30-shot rally. Be it putting away Djokovic's drop shots or trading on the baseline, the speedy 25-year-old suddenly had all the answers. 

Crucially, Djokovic's serve returned at 5-5 for a hold. And his defensive lob with Paul serving at 30-15 in the ensuing game sparked a turnaround. 

It was a sickener for Paul, as he dropped the one-hour set on a wide forehand. 

Djokovic – who repeatedly wiped the sweat off his lower arm – earned breathing space early, but the score in the second set was a tad misleading. 

The world No.35 pressurised Djokovic at 0-2, manufacturing three break points that were ultimately untaken. A stretch of Djokovic claiming 11 of 13 points subsequently blew open the set. 

This time, he didn't blink from 5-1 up and never blinked again to seal a 27th straight win at the Australian Open in two hours, 22 minutes to pass Andre Agassi. 

"Some long rallies, you could really feel them," said Djokovic. "We both had heavy legs I think in the first set but yes, I was really fortunate to hold my nerves towards the end of the first set. It was a key. 

"After that, I starting swinging through the ball more."

Key stats 

Djokovic not only won another semifinal at the Australian Open, but did so in straight sets. That makes it four in a row.

MORE: Djokovic v Paul match statistics

The last player to grab a set was Roger Federer in 2016. 

And Paul Goldstein was the last US player to topple Djokovic at the Australian Open – not including a retirement – in 2006. 

Back then, Djokovic lost in the opening round for the second straight time. Hard to believe given his current success …

What this means for Djokovic 

Djokovic holds a commanding 10-2 record against Tsitsipas, including winning the last nine and all four – conceding one set – in 2022. 

When they met in the 2021 French Open final, Djokovic had to overturn a two-set deficit. 

"I think it was the first time I came from two sets to love down in a Grand Slam final. It was also his first Grand Slam final," Djokovic said, right on both counts. "It was a really physical, emotional, mental battle, it always is with Stefanos."

After Friday's victory, Djokovic is one win away from 10 majors in Melbourne (Getty Images)

Although winning majors is Djokovic's main priority nowadays, the winner of Sunday night's final also bags the No.1 ranking. 

"Winning Grand Slams and being the No. 1 are probably the two biggest peaks you can climb as a professional tennis player," said Djokovic, the men's record holder with 373 weeks at No.1.

"Let’s see what happens."

What's next for Paul?

Paul's ranking is set to climb inside the top 20 for the first time and make him the third highest-ranked US man behind mates Taylor Fritz and Frances Tiafoe. 

Paul leaves Australia with a career-high ranking (Getty Images)

MORE: Paul's taste near the top leaves him wanting more

With American men making the semifinals in two successive Grand Slams – Tiafoe did it at the US Open – and the depth in the top 50, the 20-year US men's drought at majors could be getting closer to ending.