Djokovic holds off Fritz to reach Australian Open semifinals for 11th time

Novak Djokovic is back in the semifinals at the Monte Carlo Masters for the first time since 2015. (AP)

MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — Nobody has ever been better at this end of the Australian Open than Novak Djokovic, the 10-time champion.

Every time he’s won a quarterfinal at Melbourne Park — as he did against Taylor Fritz on Tuesday — he’s gone on to win the title. 

The odds are usually stacked against his semifinal rival. Perhaps even more so against fourth-seeded Jannik Sinner, who won a quarterfinal over No. 5 Andrey Rublev that didn’t start until 10:42 p.m. and didn’t finish until 1:21 a.m. Wednesday.

Djokovic reached his record-extending 48th Grand Slam semifinal by beating Fritz 7-6 (3), 4-6, 6-2, 6-3 in 3 3/4 hours. Their match started late in the heat of the afternoon because U.S. Open champion Coco Gauff’s preceding win over Marta Kostyuk took more than three hours.

In an on-court interview with Australian player Nick Kyrgios, who has been sidelined by a long-term injury, Djokovic made a light-hearted joke about getting popcorn and watching Sinner vs. Rublev on late-night TV.

Later, Djokovic said Sinner’s late finish wouldn’t be a factor in Friday’s semifinals.

“What kind of advantage will I have? We have two days. It’s not much of an advantage that I see there,” he said. “Plenty of time for whoever wins that match tonight to recover.”

The start of the night session was pushed back past 9 p.m. and could have gone very, very late if not for women’s champion Aryna Sabalenka and Sinner both winning in straight sets.

Sinner was down 5-1 in the second-set tiebreaker before winning six straight points, starting with a stunning crosscourt forehand, to turn momentum and take the match 6-4, 7-6 (5), 6-3.

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“I want to thank everyone for staying so long,” Sinner said in his on-court interview. “It’s always a huge pleasure to play here on this court. It doesn’t really matter the time.”

Since losing to Djokovic in last year’s Wimbledon semifinals, Sinner has won two of his three matches against the 24-time major champion.

“I’m really lucky to face him again (in) one of the biggest tournaments in the world,” he said. “Happy I can play the No. 1 in the world. He won here some times!”

Sinner hasn’t dropped a set yet.

Djokovic, meanwhile, has spent more time on court through five rounds than ever at Melbourne Park — more than 15 hours — but thinks he’s still building into it. He’s on a 33-match winning streak at the Australian Open — a tournament record he shares with his childhood inspiration, Monica Seles.

The first game took 16 minutes and the first set lasted 1 hour, 24 minutes. Fritz got the first break of serve and maintained it to win the second set.

“Credit to him for playing really well. You could see that he had a clear game plan. He was really sharp,” Djokovic said. “So it was definitely a struggle for me to play the first couple sets.

“In the third, things started to come together. I wasn’t serving well at all first two sets, and then third and fourth, great.”

Fritz saved the first 15 breakpoints he faced, an impressive stat against one of the best returners ever.

“My conversion was really poor but in the end of the day, I managed to break him when it mattered,” Djokovic said. 

The first game set the tone for a long, tough match. It contained 24 points, going to deuce nine times. 

Then followed the longest first set of the tournament. In the tiebreaker, Djokovic finished a 21-shot rally with a stunning backhand crosscourt winner to get five set points. He put his finger to his ear, nodded his head and blew a kiss toward a commentary box at the rear of the court.

After two tight sets, Fritz was broken in the second game of the third when Djokovic converted his 16th chance. Djokovic broke again, at love, in the ninth game to wrap up the third.

In the fourth, there was an exchange of breaks until Djokovic served it out from 5-3 to improve to 9-0 against Fritz in career head-to-heads.

Fritz said he felt for Sinner and Rublev, and tournament scheduling had come up in the locker rooms after Daniil Medvedev’s second-round match didn’t start until after 11 p.m. and didn’t finish until almost 4 a.m. He said with physio, treatment and wrapping up, it takes hours after the match to get to sleep.

“It … just screws up your whole clock,” Fritz said. “I pray for those guys.”

Sinner said there were advantages to playing late, such as the timing for fans watching the broadcast in Italy.

“In my mind I knew if I win I have two days off, which even if you potentially finish very late, you can recover,” he said. “But in this moment, you don’t watch the clock!”

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