Australian Open 2023: Novak Djokovic ousts American Tommy Paul in men’s semifinals

Serbian star is one victory away from tying Rafael Nadal's record of 22 Grand Slam titles; will face third-seeded Stefanos Tsitsipas on Sunday

Novak Djokovic of Serbia reacts after winning the first set against Tommy Paul. (AP Photo/Aaron Favila)
Novak Djokovic of Serbia reacts after winning the first set against Tommy Paul. (AP Photo/Aaron Favila)

Novak Djokovic — who one year ago was not allowed to compete at the Australian Open — is one victory away from making men's tennis history.

The fourth-seeded Djokovic ousted surprising American semifinalist Tommy Paul 7-5, 6-1, 6-2 on Friday in Melbourne and will face third-seeded Stefanos Tsitsipas, who knocked off 18th-seeded Karen Khachanov in the other semifinal, on Sunday for the title. If Djokovic beats Tsitsipas, he’ll tie Rafael Nadal for the most men's singles titles in Grand Slam history.

The 35-year-old Djokovic, who was a massive favorite entering his match with the 25-year-old Paul, has had a pretty easy time so far on the court in his return to Melbourne after missing last year's event due to not being vaccinated against COVID-19. Djokovic defeated Roberto Carballes Baena, Enzo Couacaud, No. 27 Grigor Dimitrov, No. 22 Alex de Minaur, No. 5 Andrey Rublev and Paul, losing only one set along the way.

But Paul wasn't a total pushover in this match, especially early, and Djokovic seemed to be hobbled for a big part of it. Paul trailed 1-5 in the first set but won four straight games to tie it 5-5 — seemingly sparked by a discussion between Djokovic and the chair umpire over the serve clock — before eventually losing the set 7-5. Djokovic was able to get his second wind and cruise in the final two sets.

"I'm really thankful that I have enough gas in my legs to be able to play at this level," Djokovic said after the match. "It's a great battle, first of all with yourself and then your opponent. You don't have much time between points, so those long rallies you can really feel them.

"We both had happy legs in the first set. I was really fortunate to hold my nerves near the end of the first set. ... I'm just really pleased to get through to another final."

Djokovic advanced to his 10th Australian Open final exactly 15 years to the day in which he won his first Australian Open and Grand Slam title in 2008 over Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.

"I have a pretty vivid and strong imagination," Djokovic said. "I don't think I could have imagined the way things turned out. I’m super blessed and grateful, that's all I can say. I'm really trying to cherish every moment."

There has, however, been some drama off the court for Djokovic. The Serbian star received a warning from Tennis Australia on Thursday after his father, Srdjan, was seen on video taking part in a demonstration supporting Russian president Vladimir Putin. His father did not attend Friday's match.

"I am here to support my son only," Srdjan said in a statement. "I had no intention of causing such headlines or disruption."

Despite that and some injury concerns, nothing seems to be slowing Djokovic, who broke Andre Agassi's Open-era record with his 27th consecutive victory at Melbourne Park with his triumph against Paul in their first meeting. Djokovic has never lost in the Australian Open semifinals, improving to 10-0.

But Djokovic may face his toughest test in the final against Tsitsipas, who beat Khachanov 7-6 (2), 6-4, 6-7 (6), 6-3 earlier Friday to reach the men's singles final at this Grand Slam for the first time. Tsitsipas had lost in his other three Australian Open semifinal matches.

"It's great, perfect, 110 percent," Djokovic joked after the match when asked about how he's feeling. "We'll see in two days."

And the winner will be the No. 1 player in the world.

"Winning Grand Slams and being No. 1 in the world are probably the two biggest peaks you can climb in professional tennis," Djokovic said. "Let's see what happens."

Meanwhile, the magical run finally ended for Paul, who was the first American since 2009 to advance to the Australian Open semifinals. Paul, ranked No. 35 in the world, had never advanced past the fourth round in 13 previous Grand Slam events. Paul’s triumphs in Melbourne included a five-set win over No. 30 Alejandro Davidovich Fokina in the second round, a four-set triumph over No. 24 Roberto Bautista Agut in the fourth round and a four-set thriller over another American, Ben Shelton, in the quarterfinals.

Paul was among three American men who reached the final eight at the Australian Open, along with Shelton and Sebastian Korda. That hasn't happened since 2000. And despite his loss to Djokovic, Paul will rise into the top 20 in the ATP rankings.

"Walking on the court was cool," Paul said. "Playing the match and getting beaten like that kinda sucked. It's great that I got to see the level of where I want to be and know how good I have to play if I want to beat people like that. It was a good experience. ...

"I'm stoked to have made semis here. ... It was a great two weeks for me. Obviously, you have to carry it throughout the whole season. I don't want to be a one-hit wonder."

First set: Clock discussion nearly costs Djokovic

An aggressive Paul had two break points against Djokovic in the first game as both players looked tight, but Djokovic held with back-to-back aces, then easily broke Paul in the second game to take early control. Down 3-0, Paul won an extended rally to start his second service game and added an ace on his way to winning his first game of the match.

"I had a couple of looks in the first game, but the match started going really, really fast because he was returning really well," Paul said. "He really didn't let me execute any of the game plan that I had laid out for myself."

Two backhand errors by Djokovic made it 0-30 in the next game, which went to deuce. But a backhand winner and Paul's forehand that went long gave Djokovic a 4-1 lead, even though he was struggling a bit. Trailing 0-15 in the next game, Paul hit a beautiful drop shot to counter Djokovic's drop shot. Then at 30-30, a long rally went to Djokovic when Paul couldn't handle an overhead smash, and a long forehand by Paul gave Djokovic a second break and a 5-1 lead.

But the set was far from over.

The next game went to deuce before a discussion between Djokovic and the chair umpire over the serve clock. Djokovic complained about how long it takes to get to the towels between serves with the service clock running. That discussion seemed to unnerve Djokovic as Paul won the next two points to break Djokovic and cut the deficit to 5-2, then held at love to make it 5-3. Djokovic, up a break, double faulted to start the next game and faced a double break point. Paul converted the second one after a 30-point rally to make it 5-4. Paul then held serve with a backhand winner to make it 5-5.

"It started to get really fun," Paul said.

Djokovic ended Paul's streak in the next game, holding serve with an overhead slam, then at 30-30 in the next game, Paul hit back-to-back unforced errors to give Djokovic the break and the first set 7-5 despite 24 unforced errors from the Serbian star.

The crowd got into Djokovic's ear after the set, and he seemed ready to bring it on.

Second set: Hobbled Djokovic gets into gear

Djokovic held to open the second set and seemed to be more like himself, then broke Paul for a 2-0 lead. A running forehand winner at the net by Paul gave him a 30-15 lead in the next game, and a double fault by Djokovic made it 30-40 as Djokovic suddenly seemed to hit the wall a little bit. Paul ended up with three break chances in the game, but he couldn't convert as Djokovic held for a 3-0 lead.

Two unforced errors in the next game saw Paul quickly fall behind 0-30, but back-to-back winners made it 30-30. But Paul couldn't hold as Djokovic took a 4-0 lead, then held at love for a 5-0 lead. Paul, with some nice returns, was able to hold serve in the next game to cut the deficit to 5-1, ending Djokovic's seven-game winning streak.

Would we see another 5-1 rally from Paul? Not this time.

A couple of forehand winners from Djokovic in the next game gave him a 30-15 lead, but a great defensive play from Paul on a Djokovic overhead led to a Paul point to make it 30-30. But a Paul backhand into the net gave Djokovic a set point, which he converted with an overhead smash that Paul couldn't return.

Third set: With second wind, Djokovic closes it out

Paul saved two break points to open the third set with a beautiful backhand volley and an overhead smash. A nice lob shot by Djokovic, however, gave him a third game point, which he converted to get an early break. A 19-shot rally won by Djokovic, fueled by a nice drop shot, to open the next game sparked Djokovic to a 2-0 lead as Paul seemed to be the one losing steam.

A backhand error by Paul in the next game gave Djokovic another service break and a 3-0 lead. Paul earned a break point in the next game at 30-40, but a nice backhand winner down the line from Djokovic made it deuce. Forehand and backhand mishits from Paul gave Djokovic a 4-0 lead. Paul held serve and got on the board in the third set in the next game. Djokovic, however, held at love for a 5-1 lead.

Another 5-1 lead? Would this be more like the first set where Paul rallied or the second set where Djokovic closed it out quickly?

Paul started the next game with a backhand unforced error, but he won the next three points to make it 40-15 and eventually held to cut Djokovic's lead to 5-2. Paul couldn't return a Djokovic overhead to open the next game. A forehand into the net made it 30-0, and a near miss from Paul on a running forehand gave Djokovic three match points. He converted the first to advance to his seventh final in his past eight majors.