MELBOURNE: Novak Djokovic continued making his quest for a record-extending 10th Australian Open title look like a walk in the park by demolishing Andrey Rublev to reach the last four on Wednesday, while Aryna Sabalenka was equally impressive in reaching the women’s last four.
Serbia’s Djokovic, still wearing a thigh strapping but looking supreme, raced to a 6-1, 6-2, 6-4 victory on Rod Laver Arena with a performance that would have been uncomfortable viewing for American Tommy Paul.
Unseeded Paul won 7-6 (8-6), 6-3, 5-7, 6-4 in an All-American quarter-final clash against 20-year-old Ben Shelton to advance to the semi-finals of a major for the first time.
A disbelieving Magda Linette continued her dream Australian Open run by stunning former world number one Karolina Pliskova to set up a semi-final against Sabalenka.
Fifth seed Sabalenka, the only top-10 seed left in the women’s draw, earned her spot in the semi-finals by outmuscling Donna Vekic 6-3, 6-2 in a ferocious battle of big hitters on a baking Rod Laver Arena.
Djokovic’s quest to go level with great rival Rafael Nadal on a leading 22 major titles carries an air of inevitability and he is making a mockery of the theory that the second week of Grand Slam tournaments get tougher.
In the last 16 he dropped five games against home hope Alex de Minaur and he was just as ruthless against Rublev as he made it 25 successive wins in succession at the Australian Open.
Fifth seed Rublev has now lost all seven Grand Slam quarter-finals which he contested.
“I would rank this as very close to the performance of two nights ago,” Djokovic said on court. “I’m playing very solid from the back of the court and really love these conditions. “The scoreline maybe in the first two sets tonight didn’t show the reality of the match. But all the important moments I found my best tennis.”
Paul is only the third active American man to reach a Grand Slam semi-final, joining John Isner (2018 Wimbledon) and Frances Tiafoe (2022 US Open) but will have to register a seismic shock if he is to go any further.
“I’m really excited, man. It’s really cool. I think it’s even cooler if I do play Novak,” the 25-year-old Florida-based Paul said after his victory. “To play Novak here in Australia would be awesome. Obviously he’s pretty comfortable here in Australia. It’s going to be a challenging match. But I’m playing some of my best tennis.”
Paul, the first American man to reach the semi-finals in Melbourne since Andy Roddick in 2009, withstood some ferocious serving from Shelton who banged down 24 aces. “Ben’s tough to play against and he’s going to be in many matches like this,” Paul said.
The unheralded Linette, ranked 45th in the world, played wonderfully controlled tennis to wrap up a thoroughly deserved 6-3, 7-5 victory over powerful Czech Pliskova.
Linette, who had never been beyond the third round at a Grand Slam and had been expected to play second fiddle to fellow Pole Iga Swiatek at Melbourne Park, will now face Sabalenka on Thursday to decide who meets either Victoria Azarenka or Elena Rybakina in the final.
“It’s so much and I can’t really believe it,” the 30-year-old said. “I will never forget this. I’m breaking through some really difficult things for me. This will stay with me for life. So I’m really grateful.”
Sabalenka once again displayed the kind of form and finesse that have made her favourite for the women’s title.
The match against Vekic was closer than the score suggested, but Sabalenka is playing scintillating tennis — she is yet to drop a set so far this year.
It is a far cry from a year ago, when she struggled badly with her serve and was reduced to tears at an Australian Open warm-up tournament.
The 24-year-old is benefiting from a different approach when facing adversity on court.
“Before I was trying to go for aces, go for crazy shots to get easily out, to get out easily from those situations,” she said. “Right now I keep saying: ‘No, work for it, it’s not going to be easy.”
Published in Dawn, January 26th, 2023