Australian Open semifinal: Unstoppable Novak Djokovic has Tommy Paul in his sights next

Grand Slam fever grips tennis fans all over the world as the 2023 Australian Open kicks off. For the next fortnight, The Indian Express will bring you the biggest storylines of the day, and the best matches to watch at timings suitable for Indian audiences, every morning.

Showcase match
(4) Novak Djokovic vs Tommy Paul (Semifinal)
2 pm, Rod Laver Arena

On the first point of his Australian Open quarterfinal against Russia’s Andrey Rublev on Wednesday, Novak Djokovic hit an uncharacteristic double fault. That would be the highest of highs Rublev saw throughout the encounter, as Djokovic pummelled him 6-1, 6-2, 6-4 to book his place in the semifinal with yet another dominant display.

The Russian was nowhere near as bad as the scoreline would suggest, moving well on court, striking his famously powerful forehand well, and serving well. It was just that Djokovic, on the hunt for a 10th Australian Open and 22nd Grand Slam singles title, was simply too good.

The same fate befell Alex de Minaur a few days prior, a talented young Aussie who was meant to test Djokovic’s injured hamstring and make things difficult for him with boisterous local support. That same support turned mute, as Djokovic gave them an exhibition of some of his best tennis in recent years to strangle their local hero 6-2, 6-1, 6-2 in less than two hours.

To criticize either Rublev or de Minaur for their tactics or decision-making would be akin to bullying. The truth is, this is Djokovic’s home – the night session at the Rod Laver Arena where he is unbeaten in 26 matches tying Andre Agassi’s all-time record. This is a court where he has played finals against all-time greats like Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray, and made them look like glorified club players.

For all the attention that has been on Djokovic’s injured hamstring – some even accusing the Serb of faking his injury, despite him wearing protective tape and not practicing on the days between matches – he has made light work of his five matches at the Australian Open so far. The serve and return are on fire, and his command of the baseline seems just as good as it was during his peak.

For all the serenity that was meant to surround his return to Melbourne, with fans accepting him after last year’s controversy, he has griped and grimaced through it all. Despite his domination, he has been irritated by high wind affecting his service motion, or drunken hecklers, almost as if he is trying to squeeze every bit of emotion to be able to shorten the match times even more, and make the scorelines even more humiliating.

Up next on his radar is first-time Major semifinalist, American Tommy Paul, who, according to Djokovic, can be a dangerous opponent given he has “nothing to lose”.

Paul has become a well-known entity on the professional tour over the past few years. He has made big strides recently, in particular, coming back from a set down to defeat Nadal at the Paris Masters last year. He did well to take his opportunity and emerge out of a section of the draw that saw the big names fall early.

The American has the hallmarks of what makes a great clay player – he won the French Open boys’ title in 2015 – with a strong forehand, that he is able to use well on attack and defence, and good movement. He has also made huge improvements on his serve while working with Brad Stine – most famously the coach of four-time Grand Slam champion Jim Courier. He has got a strong, well-formed game and is coming into the peak of his physical shape at the age of 25.

But none of that is likely to matter if Djokovic continues to be tuned in, in the form that he is in. A potential distraction – the 35-year-old finds himself in another media storm after his father, Srdjan, was filmed with Vladimir Putin supporters outside the stadium on Wednesday – might be a way in for Paul.

His best chance will come by simply staying with his opponent on serve and not letting the weight of the occasion blow him away. He will be praying for a lapse from Djokovic, but as Rublev and De Minaur found out before him, that is unlikely to come.

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