Djokovic said the match was the best he had felt physically for the whole tournament, after declaring following round three that he had torn a muscle in his abdomen. There was no sign of such an injury tonight, and he would not comment on what the injury was on Thursday.
“I am surprised the way I felt tonight,” he said. “I think it surpassed, in a way, my greatest wishes and the way I wanted to feel.
“But at the same time, you know, I did have a kind of similar experiences in the past where I was managing to recover pretty quickly. You know, each one of us players is different. I just have, of course with the help of all the people around me, this pretty good way and ability to recover fast.
“But I didn’t think that I’ll play without pain tonight. And I did play without pain, which is something that definitely surprised me in a positive way.”
Karatsev’s coach spoke about how in the pandemic-impacted year of 2020 he was able to drill into weaknesses in his game and also stop him behaving “like a little child”, two key factors in his barnstorming start to 2021.
But against the world No.1 Djokovic, he was comparatively powerless.
Despite a stutter to hand Karatsev a break when serving for the second set at 5-2, Djokovic played very close to flawless to build the majority of his two set to love lead.
Deep into that second set Djokovic had made only one unforced error and hit 14 winners. He had also whacked the ball harder on his forehand (on average) than he had in his run to the semi-final this year.
There were also 10 Djokovic aces to three at the same stage of the match.
Karatsev made Djokovic earn the last game of the second set. He forced the 17-time grand slam winner into a 32-shot rally, won with a silky drop shot, to bring up 40-40 when 5-4 down. Then he made Djokovic defend two breaks points. Djokovic won eventually.
Against any other opponent Karatsev may have won through to his first grand slam final.
He didn’t do a lot wrong, cracking his forehand as sweetly as anyone has this year at Melbourne Park.
But Djokovic’s defence under attack is sublime and the relentlessness of it forces errors. Karatsev couldn’t stop enough of them off his racquet.
This guided Djokovic to win the third set, and the match. He now has the chance to go to 18 grand slam titles, another one closer to Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal’s record of 20.
Karatsev said the step up to facing the world No.1 in a semi-final was too much on the night.
“There is a huge level [step up],” he said. “I mean, the difference is really big. He doesn’t give you free points. I mean, on my serve it’s like every point you have to take, you have to play the rally. The serve doesn’t work well today, and on my service games there’s always rallies. He served well all the match. Yeah, you’re under pressure.
“It [this tournament] gave me a lot of confidence. I start to believe more in myself that I can play witheveryone, as I said before.”
Anthony is a sports reporter at The Age.