Novak Djokovic paid “huge respect” to old rival Roger Federer on Thursday after he swept past the ailing star and into a record eighth Australian Open final to move closer to his 17th Grand Slam crown.
In the 50th instalment of one of sport’s greatest rivalries, the Serb shrugged off a tentative start to reinforce his recent dominance, showing no mercy to the injury-hit Swiss maestro in a 7-6 (7/1), 6-4, 6-3 win.
He will play either fifth seed Dominic Thiem or seventh-ranked German Alexander Zverev in Sunday’s final, but it will take a monumental effort to prise another title from the 32-year-old.
Of the seven Melbourne finals Djokovic has made, he has won them all.
If any extra motivation was needed, winning on Sunday will see the Serb reclaim the number one ranking after Thiem sent Rafael Nadal packing in the last eight.
“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,” said defending champion Djokovic, who is into his 26th Grand Slam final.
“After losing the first set, he got a medical (timeout). He came back and played all the way through. It’s unfortunate that he was not at his best.”
It was the fourth time Djokovic had beaten Federer at the semi-final stage in Melbourne after doing the same in 2008, 2011 and 2016.
Federer, the 2018 champion, came into the match carrying a groin injury that he picked up in his five-set, come-from-behind quarter-final win against Tennys Sandgren.
He was seen around Melbourne Park before the match with tape on his upper right leg and there were even rumours that he might pull out.
But that is not in the 38-year-old’s nature – he has only ever given up four walkovers in his long career and has never retired in more than 1 500 matches, facts that Djokovic said were “amazing” and deserved “huge respect”.
Djokovic was clear favourite after beating the third seed in every Grand Slam meeting since Wimbledon 2012, but in their 50th career clash it was Federer who initially set Rod Laver Arena alight.
The opening game, on Federer’s serve, lasted six minutes in an indication of what might be in store.
Then against the odds the 38-year-old, the oldest man in a Grand Slam semi since Jimmy Connors in 1991, broke Djokovic on his first service game with an unbelievable backhand passing shot.
The edge didn’t last long with the Serb immediately hitting back to even it up.
But the power and finesse of the Federer game was troubling Djokovic, who was on the back foot and was broken once more to go 4-1 behind.
Federer had three break points to make it 5-1, but Djokovic dug deep to fend them off as he clawed back, breaking once more as the Swiss was serving for the set.
It went to a tiebreaker which the second seed dominated to pull off a remarkable turnaround in a set that Federer threw away.
Federer took a medical timeout at the end of it and he wasn’t moving freely in the second set.
But he clung on until he fluffed an easy shot at the net to hand Djokovic set point at 4-5 and the Serb cracked a top-quality crosscourt volley to go two sets to one in front.
Djokovic was pumped and Federer rapidly running out of steam.
When the Swiss star was broken to go 4-2 behind in the third, there was no way back as his rival extended his winning record over him to 27-23.