Andrey Rublev is the sixth best tennis player in the world. He is hardworking and sincere, and with those qualities he has built a great career at the top of his trade. At the age of 25 he is approaching his physical peak and he will play a role at the top of the sport for many years to come.
Against the best, the very best, none of that means anything. On Wednesday night, Rublev entered Novak Djokovic’s den, overnight at the Rod Laver Arena, and for two hours he stood helpless on the baseline as the nine-time Australian Open champion ripped him apart 6-1, 6-2, 6 -4 to return to the semifinals.
This is Djokovic’s 10th foray into the Australian Open semifinals. Every other time he has reached this stage in the most successful tournament of his career, he has won it all. The Serb has also now won 26 consecutive matches at the tournament, equaling Andre Agassi’s record in the Open era.
In the semifinals, Djokovic will face unseeded American Tommy Paul, who continued his run by defeating his compatriot, 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 and sent a message to the rest of the field, Rublev survived a five-set psychodrama against Holger Rune, recovering from double match point to win in a final-set tie break. When Rublev expressed concern about his next opponent, his voice trembled with fear.
Over the past two weeks, the physical condition of Djokovic’s hamstring has received a lot of attention. At first, when it was still warm, he moved cautiously on his backhand wing and in the fourth game he stumbled after trying to plant his left foot to hit an open-stance backhand.
His game is so complete that it didn’t matter. He has so many more strengths than Rublev and most others, so many more options. He served superbly, dominating the baseline with his forehand and slipping into the net to play some fine volleys.
The most interesting aspect of those early stages was how Djokovic pursued an offensive line that most players try to avoid against Rublev: He constantly looked for Rublev’s forehand during their exchanges and methodically broke the Russian’s famed power. It was a successful tactic, but also a message, a reminder of his superiority in all parts of the field.
Rublev panicked on his second service game. He interrupted a foul-strewn match with a double foul to give away the first break at 3–1. Djokovic seized the break and then continued to apply relentless pressure throughout the match. His backhand soon shone – bouncing backfires off his opponent’s feet and continually breaking serve by standing on top of the baseline, thumping relentlessly with forehands.
Despite the dominant scoring, there were plenty of tough, tight deuce games that Djokovic had to dig himself out of on his serve. But whenever the moment required it, he found a brilliant serve or seamlessly switched defense to attack to escape.
This tournament was Rublev’s seventh grand slam quarterfinal and he is now 0-7 in these games. For all his positive qualities, compared to 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 neutralize his obvious strengths.
Few players in history have ever been as adept at exposing weaknesses as Djokovic, and Rublev’s game failed to stand up to his scrutiny. It was another incredible performance, another demonstration of this tournament’s greatest ever player in full flight and while he continues to master his hamstring, he has positioned himself for a monumental 10th Australian Open title.
While Djokovic will face Paul in their first meeting on Friday, Stefanos Tsitsipas will face Karen Khachanov in the other semifinal, both hoping to reach the Australian Open final for the first time. It remains to be seen if anyone else can offer a little more on the most important pitch of Djokovic’s career. Not many people have done that in the last 15 years.