MELBOURNE – Novak Djokovic smashed a racket, sending a piece of the frame flying. Later, he plopped himself down right there at the back of the blue court, looking forlorn as can be.
He dropped the opening set against Alexander Zverev, one of the young guys trying to shove aside Djokovic and the rest of the Big Three. Djokovic trailed 3-0 in the third. And 3-0 in the fourth, too, eventually even facing a set point.
Ah, but this is Djokovic we're talking about, the ultimate competitor. And this is Djokovic at the Australian Open, where no man ever has been better. So, naturally, Djokovic pulled himself together and pulled out the victory, reaching his ninth semifinal at Melbourne Park by eliminating No. 6 seed Zverev 6-7 (6), 6-2, 6-4, 7-6 (6) on Tuesday night.
“I kind of regained my focus after I broke that racket. Things started to shift a little bit for me in a positive direction,” Djokovic said in his on-court interview in Rod Laver Arena about the way he mangled his equipment by hitting it against the court three times after netting a backhand return at 3-1 in the third set.
“It was a relief for me, but I wouldn’t recommend this kind of relief-channeling, if you want to call it,” Djokovic said later. “Of course I'm not proud of that, but you go through a lot of different emotions, you go through an inner battle. Everyone is different. I have my own demons that I have to fight with.”
Djokovic is closing in on a ninth championship in Australia, which would add to his own record for a man. And an 18th Grand Slam title overall, two fewer than rivals Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal (who plays in the quarterfinals Wednesday).
Both Djokovic and Zverev wore tape on their midsections Tuesday to help with abdominal issues; Djokovic was hurt during his third-round win against Taylor Fritz and said he hasn't been practicing as normal on his off-days.
Several leading men have been injured in Australia, and Djokovic thinks a big reason for that is the unusual circumstances of players' needing to quarantine for two weeks upon arrival in the country because of the strict COVID-19 pandemic regulations Down Under.
“What we are seeing is not normal. It's not what we are used to. Top players are the fittest,” the No. 1-ranked Djokovic said after his 23-ace performance against Zverev.
In the semifinals, Djokovic will face the surprise of the tournament: Aslan Karatsev, a 27-year-old from Russia who is ranked 114th and needed to go through qualifying rounds just to get into the main draw of a major for the first time.
“To be honest,” Djokovic said, “I haven’t seen him play at all before the Australian Open.”
No one ever had been to the final four in his Slam debut, until Karatsev's 2-6, 6-4, 6-1, 6-2 elimination Tuesday of No. 18 Grigor Dimitrov, who was hurt by back spasms that made tying his shoes a chore.
Dimitrov remained on court through the finish, but on Monday, injuries caused No. 9 Matteo Berrettini to withdraw before his match and No. 22 Casper Ruud to stop after the second set of his.
Zverev, the 2020 U.S. Open runner-up and a semifinalist in Melbourne a year ago, once more had trouble against elite competition on the biggest stages. He fell to 0-8 against top 10 opponents at Grand Slam tournaments; he is 25-29 facing such foes in tour-level matches otherwise.
This story has been corrected to show that Alexander Zverev is the No. 6 seed, not No 5. seed.
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