Stefanos Tsitsipas | AFP
Melbourne: Stefanos Tsitsipas had a harder time strictly following all of the rules than he did outplaying his opponent in the early going, then recovered after blowing two match points late in the third set, and eventually reached the final at the Australian Open for the first time by beating Karen Khachanov 7-6 (2), 6-4, 6-7 (6), 6-3 on Friday.
The No. 3-seeded Tsitsipas had been 0-3 in semifinals at Melbourne Park, but he finally went a step further to get to the second Grand Slam championship match of his career.
It looked easy for the better part of three sets against Khachanov, but Tsitsipas got broken when serving for the match at 5-4 in the third, then failed to convert either chance to end it when he went up 6-4 in the ensuing tiebreaker. Khachanov collected four consecutive points there, erasing the match points with a pair of booming forehands. Tsitsipas, though, regained his footing quickly, grabbing a 3-0 lead in the fourth.
“If you stick around, if you dedicate yourself even more and if you concentrate on these important moments,” Tsitsipas said, “it pays off quite well.”
Now Tsitsipas will face Novak Djokovic or unseeded American Tommy Paul in the men's singles final on Sunday.
If he claims his first major trophy, Tsitsipas would also achieve another milestone: He would rise to No. 1 in the ATP rankings for the first time.
“I like that number. It's all about you. It's singular. It's 1,'” Tsitsipas said. “These are the moments that I've been working hard for.”
Djokovic, who would return to No. 1 if he wins the championship, has won the Australian Open nine times and owns 21 Grand Slam titles in all — only Rafael Nadal, with 22, has more among men — and carried a 26-match winning streak at Melbourne Park into Friday's second semifinal. Until this week, Paul never had been past the fourth round in 13 previous appearances at major tournaments.
Tsitsipas' other run to a major final came at the 2021 French Open, when he grabbed the first two sets before blowing that big lead and losing to Djokovic in five.
Earlier this week, Djokovic said about Tsitsipas: “He has never played a final, am I wrong?” Reminded by reporters about Roland Garros, Djokovic replied: “That's right. Sorry, my bad.”
For about 2 1/2 hours at Rod Laver Arena on Friday, which began with nary a cloud and a temperature topping 80 degrees Fahrenheit (25 Celsius), the 24-year-old from Greece showed a game that was too versatile, and strokes that were too consistent from all over the court, for the 18th-seeded Khachanov, a Russian who is now 0-2 in Slam semifinals.
The biggest issue for Tsitsipas in that span, truthfully, appeared to be trying to deal with the watchful eyes of the match officials monitoring the 25-second clock and the position of his feet.
Chair umpire Nico Helwerth's first warning for a time violation came while Tsitsipas served for the first set at 5-3, love-15. Perhaps distracted, he double-faulted to trail love-30 and eventually got broken there.
The serve clock elapsed again at 5-all, love-15, and the second infraction resulted in an automatic fault, prompting Tsitsipas' father — who coaches him, along with former player Mark Philippoussis — to stand up from his courtside seat. Again, Tsitsipas then double-faulted, again to fall behind love-30, but this time he managed to hold serve, and he was by far superior in the ensuing tiebreaker, able to ignore a foot-fault call that came at 3-1.
There were more foot-faults in the second set, and after one, Helwerth explained the problem: Tsitsipas' back foot was extended too far behind him while serving from the Deuce side, putting his shoe beyond the middle line.
Tsitsipas would go on to break to 5-4, helped by a wild point in which he got back three overheads by Khachanov, eliciting roars from the many spectators waving blue-and-white Greek flags. Soon, he grabbed that set. He broke again to lead 2-1 in the third but failed to slam the door shut.
Instead, Tsitsipas — who lost in the Melbourne semifinals to Nadal in 2019, and to Daniil Medvedev in 2021 and 2022 — needed to wait 40 minutes from his initial match point to his last.
Serving in the fourth set at 5-3, 40-love, his missed a forehand volley on No. 3. “Uh, oh,” he might have been forgiven for thinking. But on the next point, chance No. 4, he hit a serve that drew a long return and was able to exhale.
“I'm extremely happy that I'm in the final now,” Tsitsipas said, “and let's see what happens.” (AP)