Stefanos Tsitsipas of Greece reacts after defeating Karen Khachanov of Russia in their semifinal at the Australian Open tennis championship in Melbourne, Australia, Friday, Jan. 27, 2023.(AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)
MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — Winning matches at the Australian Open does not give Novak Djokovic all that much trouble.
He has a 27-match unbeaten run, the longest at the place in the 55-year Open era. And now Djokovic needs just one more victory, against Stefanos Tsitsipas in Sunday’s final, to collect what would be a record-extending 10th championship there and record-tying 22nd Grand Slam trophy overall.
It’s all of the other stuff — some of his own doing, some not — that is a lot to handle.
His streak at Melbourne Park was put on pause a year ago when he got deported from Australia because he was not vaccinated against COVID-19, and he has waffled between acknowledging that offers extra motivation this time around and also saying, “I’m over it.”
His parents and brother are back at the tournament for the first time in 15 years, but Dad did not attend Friday night’s 7-5, 6-1 6-2 victory over Tommy Paul in the semifinals after drawing attention by being seen two days earlier outside Rod Laver Arena with people showing support for Russia, whose invasion of Ukraine is now nearly a year old. Djokovic isn’t sure whether his father will be present for the final.
Djokovic requested more than once while competing last week that persistent hecklers should be removed by security while he was playing.
His left hamstring was sore enough at the beginning of the tournament that he said he was worried about it, but took “a lot” of pain-killing pills and underwent other treatments he didn’t describe in detail.
So how does the 35-year-old from Serbia compartmentalize all of that?
How does he put it aside and play the way he has been?
Since dropping the second set of his second-round match, Djokovic has won 14 sets in a row and given up a total of only 35 games in that span.
“I mean, sounds like a cliché, but you really have to accept it. It’s much easier said than done. In my case, I feel like things are just kind of piling on, adding on, somehow, for one reason or another,” he said. “I mean, it’s not an ideal situation or circumstance to be in when you have to kind of deal with all these other outside factors that are not really necessary during such an important event. But it’s been part of my life, unfortunately the last few years, more so. I just try to evolve from it. I try to become more resilient, more stronger.”
There is plenty at stake Sunday, for him and for Tsitsipas, a 24-year-old from Greece who will be appearing in his second Grand Slam final — 31 fewer than Djokovic.
In addition to the championship, the winner will move up to No. 1 in the ATP rankings, a place Djokovic has occupied more than anyone else and somewhere Tsitsipas has never been.
“Couldn’t be more ready for this moment,” Tsitsipas said after beating Karen Khachanov 7-6 (2), 6-4, 6-7 (6), 6-3 in the semifinals.
“I genuinely believe in what I’m able to produce,” he said. “That is more than enough.”
We’ll see if that is the case against Djokovic, who leads their head-to-head series 10-2, including nine consecutive victories. One of those came in the 2021 French Open final, which Tsitsipas led two sets to love before Djokovic came all the way back to win in five.
While Tsitsipas is still seeking his first major title, Djokovic is hoping to tie Rafael Nadal for the highest total by a man in Grand Slam history.
Djokovic also has this going for him: He is 19-0 combined in semifinals and finals at Melbourne Park.
“The experience of being in this particular situation and circumstances before helps. Also the fact that I never lost the Australian Open final definitely serves as a great confidence booster prior to Sunday,” Djokovic said. “But, of course, still, the job needs to be done on the court.”
Which is where things do tend to come rather easily for him.
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