Djokovic and Federer took tennis to extraordinary new levels at times before the Serbian prevailed 6-1 6-2 3-6 6-3 last night in an enthralling semi-final.
The rampant world No.1 was on track to dish out the heaviest hardcourt defeat of Federer’s 1307-match career before the great Swiss thrilled fans at Rod Laver Arena – including Laver himself – to raise hopes of a famous comeback win.
But after a controversial 10-minute stoppage to close the roof amid forecasts of rain, Djokovic regained control to seal a spot in Sunday’s night’s championship decider.
Djokovic will play the winner of tonight’s second semi-final between Scottish world No.2 and four-time runner-up Andy Murray and big-serving Canadian 13th seed Milos Raonic.
The 28-year-old will be bidding to join legends Bjorn Borg and Rod Laver with 11 major championship wins in what will be his 19th grand slam final.
“Right now, I feel like I’m at the peak of my career and I’m trying to cherish every moment on court,” Djokovic said.
“Definitely I played an unbelievable first two sets but that’s what is necessary against Roger.
“He’s been playing a very high level in this tournament. He’s been playing very aggressively.
“I came up with the right intensity. I executed everything perfectly.
“Obviously with a two-set lead is more comfortable, but it was a battle in the end.”
For Federer, the three-and-a-half-year drought since he won his 17th slam at Wimbledon in 2012 continues.
He’s been a beaten finalist three times since, losing to Djokovic all three times – at the All England Club in 2014 and 2015 and at the US Open last year.
But while the 34-year-old was disappointed with his performance, he still believes he is capable of turning the tables on his younger rival.
“I have self-confidence … that doesn’t fade away very quickly,” Federer said.
“I know it’s not easy. I never thought it was easy. But best-of-three [sets], best-of-five … I can run for four or five hours – it’s not a problem.
“I know you guys [in the media] make it a different case – I get that because you think I’m old and all that – but it’s no problem for me. It doesn’t scare me when I go into a big match against any player who’s in their prime right now.
“It’s disappointing, but at the same time I’m going deep in slams right now – I’m having great runs.
“Novak right now is a reference for everybody. He’s the only guy that has been able to stop me as of late.
“It’s okay. I wish I could have played a bit better, and who knows what would have happened, but today Novak was very, very good – there’s no doubt about it.”
The four-time Australian Open champion thrilled the crowd when he fought back to claim the third set, and received rapturous applause when he won the point of the match, and possibly the tournament, with a sublime backhand passing shot on the run in the fourth set.
He received a standing ovation as he departed Rod Laver Arena and assured local fans he would be back looking for his fifth Australian Open crown next year.
“I talk about it every time … how thankful I am for the crowd,” he said.
“It’s a big part of why I’m still playing today. I spend a lot of hours on the practice courts for exactly moments like these where you feel like you’re appreciated, you’re being pushed forward – they want to see you win.
“I wish I could have one more chance to play another match here this week, but I don’t, so of course I’m disappointed maybe for parts of my fans and also for myself.
“But I definitely walk away from a place like this and say, ‘I want to come back next year’. I want to re-live it again.”
Djokovic’s tennis in the opening set was as good as it gets.
In the 45th instalment of an epic rivalry locked at 22 wins apiece, Djokovic opened with an ace, held for love and won 12 of the first 14 points to charge to a 3-0 lead.
Hitting with incredible power and precision, the top seed gained a second break and closed out the first set in 22 minutes.
Only once in 16 previous attempts had Federer beaten Djokovic after conceding the opening set.
There appeared no way back after Djokovic broke the third seed twice more and barely dropped a point on his own serve in storming to a two-set advantage inside an hour.
Federer saved another break point in the fifth game of the third set before producing his best tennis of the night, including a crazy running crosscourt pass, to break Djokovic for 4-2 and drawing thunderous applause from the sellout crowd.
The ageless champion held firm to clinch the set on his third set point and suddenly the crowd had a match on their hands.
Striving to become the oldest Open champion since Ken Rosewall in 1972, the 34-year-old had Djokovic down love-30 immediately on the resumption of play after the roof was shut.
But Federer couldn’t convert and paid the price as Djokovic, after benefiting from a fortuitous net-cord winner, broke the Swiss for a decisive 5-3 advantage before closing out his 34th win from his past 35 grand slam encounters.
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