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    Friday, January 27, 2023

    Djokovic Defies Controversy to Surge into Australian Open Final

    Novak Djokovic put aside the controversy surrounding his father to surge into a 10th Australian Open final Friday and close in on a record-equalling 22nd Grand Slam crown.

    Only Stefanos Tsitsipas stands in his way after the Serb romped past unseeded American Tommy Paul 7-5, 6-1, 6-2 on Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne.

    Another title on Sunday will move Djokovic alongside Rafael Nadal with 22 Slam wins and see the 35-year-old return to world number one for the first time since last June.

    Greek third seed Tsitsipas, who ground past Russian 18th seed Karen Khachanov in four sets in the other semi-final, can also become the top-ranked player should he lift the trophy.

    Djokovic played without father Srdjan courtside after he was filmed posing with a man holding a Russian flag featuring Vladimir Putin's face following his son's quarter-final win.

    It sparked a backlash from Ukraine and led to calls for Djokovic's father to be banned from the tournament.

    Djokovic said after his match that the incident had been "misinterpreted", that his family was against war and he hoped to have his father back in his box for Sunday's final.

    "It has got to me, of course," he said of the controversy swirling around his father.

    "You have to find a way just to kind of accept, let it go, just not allow it to consume your day or turn your state of mind into something that you don't want, especially before semi-finals or finals of a Grand Slam."

    His ruthless win extended Djokovic's unbeaten streak at the Australian Open to 27 matches to claim sole ownership of the Open-era record at Melbourne Park ahead of Andre Agassi.

    Experience tells

    The Serbian fourth seed, a hot favourite, attacked Paul's serve straight away for an early break, then broke again when the 35th-ranked American fired a forehand long to race 5-1 in front.

    A run-in with the umpire over using his towel between points seemed to rattle Djokovic and he was broken twice in a row as Paul came surging back to 5-5.

    Djokovic regrouped to hold serve and break again and take the set in 59 minutes.

    After that wobble, it was all business, despite clutching his strapped hamstring several times, romping through the next two sets with minimal resistance in a show of force.

    "I'm really thankful that I have enough gas in my legs to be able to play at this level on one of the biggest tennis courts in the world," said Djokovic, who is now 11-0 for the season and into a 33rd Grand Slam final.

    "I know what's expected of me, I've been in this situation so many times in my career. Experience helps also," he added of being in yet another final.

    He has won all nine of his Melbourne finals.

    Tsitsipas rolls on

    Djokovic will meet Tsitsipas next after the impressive Greek battled into his first Australian final and only second at a Grand Slam.

    In the previous one, at Roland Garros in 2021, he fell to Djokovic in five sets after holding a 2-0 lead.

    At 24, Tsitsipas is the youngest man to reach the Melbourne final since a 23-year-old Djokovic in 2011.

    "I dreamed as a kid to maybe one day get to play in this court against the best players in the world," said Tsitsipas, after defeating Khachanov 7-6 (7/2), 6-4, 6-7 (6/8), 6-3.

    The Greek, also unbeaten this season with a 10-0 record, added: "I'm extremely happy that I'm in the final now and let's see what happens."

    Tsitsipas has thrived in Melbourne throughout his career after bursting on the scene at the 2019 event as a 20-year-old when he dethroned defending champion Roger Federer in the last 16.

    He went on to reach the semi-finals that year and again in 2021 and 2022.

    He came into his clash with Khachanov brimming with confidence and chasing a first major title.

    Despite failing to get over the line when serving for the match at 5-4 in the third set, then with two match points in the tiebreak, he kept his cool to secure the win and a date with Djokovic.

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