Novak Djokovic shrugged off controversy involving his father to reach a record-extending 10th Australian Open final on Friday and set up a blockbuster decider with Greek trailblazer Stefanos Tsitsipas and a battle for the world number one ranking.
Nine-times champion Djokovic maintained his perfect semi-final record at Melbourne Park with a 7-5 6-1 6-2 win over outgunned American Tommy Paul at Rod Laver Arena, where his father Srdjan was a conspicuous absentee.
Earlier on centre court, Tsitsipas saw off Russian 18th seed Karen Khachanov 7-6(2) 6-4 6-7(6) 6-3 to become the first Greek to reach the title match in a city boasting the biggest Greek population outside the southern European nation.
Srdjan Djokovic created a distraction for his son ahead of the semi-final after a video emerged showing him with fans holding Russian flags, which were banned at Melbourne Park early in the tournament
Amid calls from the Ukraine embassy and media pundits for Djokovic Sr to be banned from the tournament, he declined to attend the semi-final, saying he wanted to avoid “disruption” for his son.
Djokovic defended his father, saying he had been “misused” by Russian fans and that media had misinterpreted the video as a show of support for Russia’s war in Ukraine.
“As my father put in a statement, we are against the war, we never will support any violence or any war. We know how devastating that is for the family, for people in any country that is going through the war,” Djokovic, who grew up in Serbia during the wars in former Yugoslavia, told reporters.
Djokovic said he hoped his father could return to his players’ box for the final on Sunday, though Tennis Australia declined to comment when asked whether Srdjan would be welcome.
A year on from being deported from Australia on the eve of the tournament due to his lack of COVID-19 vaccination, drama has found Djokovic again at Melbourne Park.
He was criticised for ducking off court for an unauthorised toilet break early in the tournament and later hit out at media for scepticism about his hamstring injury.
On Friday, a man in the terraces held up a Ukraine flag when Djokovic served in his direction against Paul.
Djokovic was in a foul mood even as he raced to a 5-1 lead in the first set, repeatedly yelling at his players’ box in Serbian.
He bickered with the chair umpire over the time taken to get a towel between points, drawing loud jeers from fans.
Sensing his chance, Paul raised the pressure with some outstanding tennis, breaking the Serb twice and levelling the match at 5-5 after edging Djokovic in a 30-shot rally.
Desperate for a player to give Djokovic a proper match, the crowd was firmly in Paul’s corner, cheering the Serb’s errors.
However, that was as good as it got for Paul, as Djokovic knuckled down to win 14 of the last 17 games in a stunning counter-attack 15 years to the day after his first Australian Open title as a 20-year-old.
Despite the emphatic win, Djokovic said the fuss over his dad had affected him.
“Of course, it’s not pleasant for me to go through this with all the things that I had to deal with last year and this year in Australia,” he said.
“It’s not something that I want or need. I hope that people will let it be, and we can focus on tennis.”
There was far less drama earlier as Tsitsipas won his first Australian Open semi-final on the fourth attempt.
Sunday’s decider will be a re-match of the 2021 French Open final, which Djokovic won from two sets down to leave the Greek heartbroken.
The winner will take the number one ranking from Spain’s Carlos Alcaraz.
“I’d like that number,” said Tsitsipas.
“It’s a cornerstone final … I’ve been wanting for many years now to put Greek tennis on the map, and me and Maria (Sakkari) have done an incredible job.”
Tsitsipas can rely on a huge contingent of Greek fans to rival Djokovic’s army of Serbian supporters.
They were in full voice as he traded breaks with Khachanov in a see-sawing opening set before taking control in the tiebreak.
Two sets and a break down in the third, Khachanov showed great courage to fight back to 5-5 and take the tiebreak after Tsitsipas blew two match points.
Tsitsipas quickly regrouped, though, and closed out the fourth set in dominant fashion.
“Serbia is also a very small country, just like Greece,” said Tsitsipas.
“I hope we in Greece can achieve the same thing they have in recent years — win multiple Grand Slams.”