Defending champion Novak Djokovic showed more mental and physical flexibility, beating sixth seed German Alexander Zverev to reach the semi-finals of the Australian Open.
The top seed fought to win 6-7 (6-8) 6-2 6-4 7-6 (8-6) in Melbourne.
The Serbian player will meet qualified Russian Aslan Karatsev, who beat injured Grigor Dimitrov on Thursday.
Karatsev, ranked 114th in the world, is the first man of the open era to reach the Round of Four in his Grand Slam debut.
Few would imagine Karatsev – who largely practiced his trade on the ATP Challenger Class B Tour – to pursue his dream of beating champion Djokovic eight times.
The 33-year-old world number one seemed to be far from resting in front of Zverev, as a result of the great German serving and striking the ground as much as an abdominal injury bothered him throughout the tournament.
“Until the last shot, it was anyone’s match,” said Djokovic, who could only cope with a sarcastic smile after taking the second match point with a header.
“Emotionally I feel a little overwhelmed, it was a real fight. We pushed each other to the extreme.”
Djokovic shows class by calling at crucial moments
Whether Djokovic qualifies for the round of four hangs in the balance in most of the captivating match against 23-year-old Zverev.
Momentum oscillated between the spouses as they split opening into two groups, with fluctuations continuing as the level increased in the third and fourth groups.
After that, Djokovic said he was still bothered by an abdominal injury and that may have contributed to the malaise he showed after letting the momentum shift to Zverev in the third set.
Shortly after sitting at the back of the field while Zverev was switching paddles, indicating his exasperation at the delay, Djokovic broke out when he was 4-1 down.
He threw his racket three times into the blue court, leaving shrapnel of his tire needing to be wiped off by the ball girl before play resumed.
The release of his frustrated paid earnings. Djokovic won the next four matches to turn the group in his favor, and Zverev’s old habit helped him make double faults in crucial times.
Another fierce roar from Djokovic indicates the importance of moving forward.
That left Zverev on a daunting task if he were to score his first victory over an opponent of the top 10 competitors in a major tournament.
An early break in Group D boosted the German’s chances, and continued with a tough shock – his double-fault demons threatened to knock Djokovic back again – to lead 3-0.
Not for long, however, as Djokovic returned a break in Zverev’s next serving match. This enabled the Serbian to reach the 3-3 level and the pair cannot be separated until the tiebreak.
After wasting the first match point with a backhand kick after a long run, Djokovic didn’t make a mistake in the second.
Djokovic’s muted celebration contrasted starkly with the mad reaction of his team, who jumped and cuddled to celebrate his man’s arrival in the Grand Slam semi-finals.
Asked whether the abdominal injury was the hardest he encountered in a specialty, he said, “Yes, I’ve been doing various things to try to put myself into a play position.
“I did not train on holidays and I will do the same. I hope the result is the same today.”
Despite his troubles, defeating Karatsev at the Rod Laver Arena – a stadium that Djokovic says “feels at home” after dominating the tournament for the past 13 years – would be a seismic shock ranked among the big surprises in the game.
Karatsev is trying to think “round after round”
Reaching the semifinals is an incredible feat for Karatsev, who grew up playing tennis in Israel after moving there at the age of three.
After returning to Russia with his 12-year-old father, he trained in Rostov and Moscow as a teenager before continuing his football career which has seen him work with coaches in Spain, Germany and Belarus.
He became the second qualifier to reach the semi-finals of the Australian Open after Australian Bob Geltenan in December 1977.
Karatsev is also the lowest-ranked man to reach the Round of Four since Patrick McEnroe, who was ranked 114th at the time, did so in 1991.
The 27-year-old said, “It is amazing to reach the semi-finals of the qualifiers. I just try to enjoy the moment and not think about it too much and play from round to round.”
“Four months ago, I was 116th and my first step was to move onto the top 100 companies by the end of 2020. But that didn’t happen.”
Injury problems helped Karatsev to surprise Dimitrov, who needed treatment in the back and was struggling to move by the end of the match.
Karatsev himself looked exhausted in the weak first set, with Dimitrov playing five games in a row to win the first match.
Karatsev had to avoid breaking five points in a 13-minute serving game in the early stages of Group Two before seizing the opportunity when Dimitrov fell into disrepair.
Dimitrov, who reached the semi-finals in Melbourne Park in 2017, has repeatedly said “I’m sorry” at his training box and struggled to climb stairs after the match.
“I had a back spasm yesterday at some point and that was all. We couldn’t fix it in time,” Dimitrov said.
“It happened early in the game. He kept going and it couldn’t be stopped.”