Djokovic overcomes early struggle to beat Federer and reach record eighth Australian Open final

Hannah Wilks:

Novak Djokovic’s Melbourne supremacy continues, with the Serb set to play in his eighth Australian Open final after scoring a straight-sets defeat over Roger Federer in the semifinals.

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Thursday’s semifinal was the fiftieth instalment of the storied rivalry between Djokovic and Federer and their first meeting at a Grand Slam since the Wimbledon final thriller of last July in which Federer held match points before Djokovic came back to win.

But a clash between them has rarely been approached with one player so favoured to win, with Federer carrying a groin injury which became apparent in his five-set win over Tennys Sandgren, which saw him save seven match points in the fourth set.

And although Djokovic struggled at the beginning of the match, he ultimately ran out a 7-6(1), 6-4, 6-3 winner, scoring his first straight-sets victory over Federer at a Grand Slam since the 2012 French Open.

It had been rumoured that Federer would not even be able to take the court, and he got off to a difficult start, taking six minutes to hold in a four-deuce service game to open the match. But with that opening hold of serve under his belt, Federer stunned everybody – including Djokovic – when he landed a scintillating backhand winner down the line, his finest shot of the tournament, to break serve.

Djokovic broke back, but dropped serve again as he struggled for rhythm and timing, seemingly rocked back on his heels by what seemed to be a free-flowing Federer. The Swiss built a 4-1 lead, attacking at every opportunity while Djokovic struggled, and even had two points for a 5-1 lead.

The first two sets did not come easily for Djokovic (AAP Image/Michael Dodge)

Djokovic fended off those break points to keep the deficit to one break, and although Federer held in 61 seconds for 5-2 – serving as many aces in those first seven games as he had done in five sets against Sandgren – Djokovic broke as Federer served for the set, outlasting him in a key backhand-to-backhand duel. Federer held from 15-40 at 5-5 to guarantee himself at least a tie-break in the set, but just as he had done in the Wimbledon final, Djokovic elevated his game in the shoot-out, delivering eight flawless points without making a single mistake and taking the set 7-6(1) in 62 minutes with a clean return winner.

From that point on, the match felt like a foregone conclusion: Federer had expended plenty of energy for no return, the worst possible outcome when carrying an injury. Although Djokovic also needed the doctor, who gave him some medication for a possible stomach complaint, it was Federer who took an off-court medical timeout between sets. The Swiss saved a break point at 3-3 but could not make any impression on Djokovic’s serve, and with Federer serving to stay in the set, Djokovic played a tremendous returning game. On set point, Federer, unable to stay in the rally, threw in a drop shot and Djokovic chased it down with trademark foot speed, whipping the winner cross-court.

Federer congratulates Djokovic after the match (Credit Image: © Patrick Hamilton/Belga via ZUMA Press)

He gave a lengthy roar – side-eyed by Federer – and the outcome of the third set seemed already decided. Federer continued to produce some highlight-reel-worthy winners for the crowd on Rod Laver Arena, but he was simply not in any real condition to go toe-to-toe with Djokovic from the baseline and fell behind 2-4 when Djokovic’s dipping cross-court pass landed on the sideline. The Serb wrapped up victory a few games later.

With the atmosphere slightly subdued as Federer left the court, Djokovic was swift to pay tribute to the effort level of his rival, telling Jim Courier in the post-match on-court interview:

‘He got off to a good start and I was pretty nervous at the beginning.

‘I have to say I respect Roger for coming out tonight. He was obviously hurt and not close to his best in terms of movement. It wasn’t the right mindset at the beginning, because I was watching him and how he was moving early on, rather than executing my own shots. I managed to dig my way back and win the first set, which was obviously mentally important.’

Djokovic enlarged on the theme in his press conference, saying:

‘It’s never easy to play Roger. I mean, obviously he was hurting. You could see it in his movement. Respect to him for trying his best. After losing the first set, he got a medical. He came back and played all the way through. That’s really worth respect. It’s unfortunate that he was not at his best.

‘I still think he played pretty well. He was coming to the net and trying to mix things up. I don’t know exactly to what degree his injury is, but when you’re feeling a little bit hurt, you kind of go for your shots even more.’

Federer was fairly phlegmatic after the match, calling the match ‘horrible’ but clearly feeling he had done the best he could given the circumstances and optimistic about a quick recovery.

The six-time Australian Open champion will move on to rest and recuperate but it’s Djokovic who moves on to the final.

Djokovic, who already owns the outright record for most Australian Open titles, now holds the record for most finals reached in Melbourne as he prepares to play his eighth. He has never lost one, and is now 12-0 in 2020 after leading Serbia to the ATP Cup title at the beginning of January, winning all his singles matches on the way.

The world no. 2 said:

‘I’m pleased with the way I’ve been feeling and playing. I thought the ATP Cup went really well for me. I got a lot of hours spent on the court, singles and doubles. It was a great lead-up for Australian Open. Obviously, I got a lot of positive energy from that competition.

‘I dropped only one set so far up to the final. I have two days of no match right now, which actually is really good. It gives me more time to recuperate and gather all the necessary energy for the final.’

With Rafael Nadal losing to Dominic Thiem in the quarterfinals on Wednesday, Djokovic can now retake the world no. 1 ranking if he wins the Australian Open title for an eighth time. He will face either Thiem or Alexander Zverev, who play on Friday, in the final on Sunday.