Andrey Rublev is the sixth best tennis player in the world. He is hard-working and sincere, and with those qualities has built a great career at the top of his profession. At 25, he is moving into his physical peak, and should feature at the top of the sport for years to come.
Against the best, the very best, none of that means a thing. On Wednesday night, Rublev entered Novak Djokovic’s lair, night-time on Rod Laver Arena, and for two hours he stood helplessly on the baseline as the nine-times Australian Open champion tore him apart 6-1, 6-2, 6-4 to return to the semi-finals.
“The last two matches, playing against two guys that are really good players, in-form players, to beat them dominantly in three sets is definitely something that I want in this moment,” said Djokovic. “Something that sends a message to all my opponents remaining in the draw.”
This is Djokovic’s 10th foray to the semi-finals of the Australian Open. Every other time he has reached this stage in the most successful tournament of his career, he has won it. The Serb has also now won 26 consecutive matches at the tournament, equalling Andre Agassi’s Open-era record.
Awaiting Djokovic in the semi-final is the unseeded American Tommy Paul, who continued his run by defeating his compatriot, the 20-year-old Ben Shelton, 7-6 (6), 6-3, 5-7, 6-4 to achieve the best result of his career.
Hours before Djokovic destroyed Alex de Minaur in front of the Australian’s home crowd on Monday night, sending a message to the rest of the field, Rublev survived a five-set psychodrama of average quality against Holger Rune, recovering from double match-point down to win a final set tie-break. As Rublev expressed concern about his next opponent, his voice shook with fear.
Over the past two weeks, the state of Djokovic’s hamstring has commanded significant attention. Early on, as it warmed up, he moved tentatively on his backhand wing and in the fourth game he stumbled after trying to plant his left foot to strike an open-stance backhand.
His game is so complete that it did not matter. He has so many more strengths than Rublev, and most others, so many more options. He served extremely well, he dominated the baseline with his forehand and slipped to the net to play a few handsome volleys.
The most interesting aspect of those early stages was how Djokovic pursued a line of attack that most players try to avoid against Rublev: he constantly sought out Rublev’s forehand during their exchanges and methodically broke down the Russian’s famous strength. It was a successful tactic, but also a message, a reminder of his superiority in all parts of the court.
By his second service game, Rublev appeared to be panicking. He punctuated an error-strewn game with a double fault to give away the first break at 3-1. Djokovic snatched the break and then continued to pile on relentless pressure throughout the match. His backhand soon shone – he deflected returns at his opponent’s feet and continually broke serve by standing on top of the baseline, relentlessly pounding forehands.
While Djokovic received significant support, during the match he spoke with the umpire, James Keothavong, about a spectator who continually heckled him. “If somebody steps over the line and starts making comments that are not related to support of the other player, he just wants to provoke and insult, then stepping over the line is something that I react to,” he said.
Despite the emphatic score, there were numerous tough, tight deuce games that Djokovic had to dig himself out of on his serve. Every time the moment required it, he found a brilliant serve or he seamlessly converted defence into attack to escape.
This tournament marked Rublev’s seventh grand slam quarter-final and he is now 0-7 in these matches. For all of his positive qualities, compared with the best players in the world the Russian is one dimensional. He relies on attacking from the baseline through his serve and forehand, and when all else fails, he attacks more. He is helpless when the best players neutralise his obvious strengths.
Few players in history have ever been as proficient at exposing weaknesses as Djokovic, and Rublev’s game did not stand up to his interrogation. It was another incredible performance, another exhibition of this tournament’s best-ever player in full flight and as he continues to manage his hamstring, he has positioned himself for a monumental 10th Australian Open title.
While Djokovic faces Paul in their first meeting on Friday, Stefanos Tsitsipas will battle Karen Khachanov in the other semi-final, both hoping to reach the final for the first time. It remains to be seen if there is anyone left who could offer anything more on the most important court of Djokovic’s career. Over the past 15 years, not many have.
“I feel good on the court, better and better as the tournament progresses. I’ve been in this situation in so many times in my life, in my career, never lost a semi-finals in Australian Open. Hopefully that will stay the same,” said Djokovic.