Novak Djokovic reached the Australian Open final a ninth time by stopping high-flying Russian qualifier Aslan Karatsev on Thursday while Naomi Osaka ended Serena Williams’ latest bid for a record-equalling 24th title at the majors.
World number one Djokovic overcame a spirited fightback from 114th-ranked Karatsev to win 6-3, 6-4, 6-2 in less than two hours the reach the final he has won on all eight previous occasions.
Osaka meanwhile won 6-3, 6-4 over Williams in 75 minutes at Melbourne Park, and now has a shot at her second Australian Open crown, having won in 2019, and fourth title overall at the majors, while there were doubts whether Williams would return next year.
In the final on Saturday, third-seeded Osaka will play Jennifer Brady from the United States , who prevailed against Czech player Karolina Muchova in three sets 6-4, 3-6, 6-4 to reach her first final at the majors.
Djokovic showed no signs of an abdominal injury he suffered in the third round when he started strongly against Karatsev, the first ever qualifier to go this far in a main draw debut at a grand slam.
The Serb won eight of nine games from 3-3 in the first set to 5-1 up in the second en route to what seemed an easy win, committing a mere one unforced error in the match until then.
But Karatsev roared back to 5-4 and even had two break points to tie at 5-5. Djokovic eventually sealed the set and even though he also blew a 2-0 lead in the third he won the last four games and wrapped up matters with aces 16 and 17 in 1 hour 53 minutes.
Djokovic paid tribute to Karatsev by saying “well done to him” while he was also pleased with his own performance despite the hiccups midway through.
“This is the best I have felt in the tournament, I felt great, could swing through the ball, no pain. It was the best match so far, it came at the right time and I am thrilled to feel this way,” he said.
“I have had enough match play, enough practice so it is gathering enough energy for the most important match of the Australian Open.”
His opponent Sunday is another Russian in the form of fourth-seed Daniil Medvedev or fifth-seeded Greek Stefanos Tsitsipas who contest the second semi-final Friday.
“I have no preference,” Djokovic said. “It will be interesting to see them play. I will take the popcorn and enjoy it.”
Tenth-seed Williams, who let an early 2-0 lead slip, will have to wait until the next grand slam to continue her path to the 24th title she has been chasing since her last major trophy 2017 in Melbourne.
But doubts were raised about the 39-year-old’s future when a tearful Williams first spent more time than usal on court after the match and prematurely ended her post-match news conference after not saying whether it was her last ever appearance at Melbourne Park.
“I don’t know. If I ever say farewell, I wouldn’t tell anyone,” Williams said.
“So … I don’t know. The Aussie crowd is so amazing, so it was nice to see,” an emotional Williams added.
Osaka was meanwhile happy to reach another final at the majors where she is unbeaten in her previous three deciders, the first a 2018 US Open win over Williams.
“It’s always an honour to play her and I just didn’t want to go out really bad … the biggest thing I’ve learnt over the past couple of years is you’re a competitor playing another competitor,” Osaka said in praise of her opponent.
Looking at the match, she added: “I hit a lot of unforced errors in the first couple of games. I was really nervous and sort of scared in the beginning but then I got into it and for me it’s about having fun.”
The 22nd-seeded Brady meanwhile prevailed over Muchova, who in the quarters had upset world number one and local star Ashleigh Barty, on fifth match point after a long final game in which she saved three break points.
“I can’t feel my legs. My legs are shaking, my heart is racing,” said Brady after reaching the final.
Osaka beat Brady in last year’s US Open semis en route to the title.
Spectators were also permitted back in Thursday after Victoria’s five-day lockdown ended, with 7,447 allowed in for each session.