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By Richard Pagliaro | Tuesday, June 6, 2023


Novak Djokovic beat Karen Khachanov to charge into his 12th Roland Garros semifinal—and move to within two wins of a 23rd major title.

Photo credit: Roland Garros Facebook

First-set turbulence wasn't stalling a high-flying Novak Djokovic today.

Down a set, Djokovic brushed clumped clay free from the bottom of his Asics shoes, dug in closer to the baseline and stormed back with belief to thwart the threat of explosive Karen Khachanov.

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Booming an ace down the middle, Djokovic sealed a 4-6, 7-6(0), 6-2, 6-4 triumph to reach the Roland Garros semifinals for the 12th time.

Playing with greater precision as the match progressed, Djokovic streaked through a perfect second-set tiebreaker and eight straight points to sew up his 90th Roland Garros victory, improving to 90-16 in Paris.

"I kind of held my nerves in the tiebreak of the second, played a perfect tiebreak, really. Amazing tiebreak," Djokovic said. "You know, every single point I played it in a perfect manner. That gave me confidence boost, and I started swinging through the ball a bit more, feeling more comfortable on the court.

"Then played a really good third set, had things in control until 4-2, 15-40 in the fourth, and then played a bit loose three, four points. Then I complicated my own life by losing the serve in the next game. But, you know, managed to regroup very quickly, and played a perfect eight points to finish the match."

It is Djokovic's 45th career Grand Slam semifinal, second only to rival Roger Federer's Open Era record of 46 major semifinals.

Credit Khachanov from bringing more energy and firepower at the outset. The Australian Open semifinalist entered the second-set tiebreaker closing in on a two-set lead, but Djokovic recognizes the magnitude of the moment and adapts better than anyone.

Two-time champion Djokovic proclaimed before the tournament he liked chances against any opponent on any surface in best-of-five set matches. Given Djokovic's dominant 5-set record you can understand his confidence.

Best-of-five gives Djokovic time to adjust and apply his versatility as he did today, cutting down his unforced errors and minimizing the moon ball forays from the first set with assertive deep drives to forcing the 6'6" Khachanov to hit on the move.

Smoother movement around the court combined with some deft down the line drives fueled Djokovic to his ninth win in 10 meetings vs. Khachanov. Djokovic hit 59 winners, 19 more than Khachanov, and denied eight of 10 break points.

It's the third straight major semifinal for the Australian Open and Wimbledon champion, who dropped his first set of the tournament yet denied Khachanov his third consecutive Grand Slam semifinal.

"These kind of wins I think serve as a great confidence booster mentally, so also physically and emotionally for me," Djokovic said. "It's important to win a match where you were losing or you were being down and then you came back and won a match. So especially at the latter stages of a Grand Slam against the top players.

"Now I have a couple of days off, which is two days actually, which is good, I think, to recuperate, recover all the energy, physical energy, as possible, and then give it all on Friday.

"Of course it's a big success. Yeah, I am self-critical but I am also content with the result. I have to be. It's semifinals of a Grand Slam, and it's exactly where I want to be."

Continuing his historic flight toward a men's record 23rd Grand Slam title, Djokovic will face either world No. 1 Carlos Alcaraz or fifth-seeded Stefanos Tsitsipas for a spot in Sunday's final.

If Tsitsipas prevails, he will face Djokovic in a rematch of the 2021 Roland Garros final that saw the Serbian roar back from a two-set deficit to capture his second French Open championship.

A Djokovic vs. Alcaraz would electrify the City of Light as the first major meeting between the champions.

In their lone prior meeting at the 2022 Madrid, Alcaraz masterfully mixed forehand rockets with feather duster droppers, out-dueling then world No. 1 Djokovic 6-7(5), 7-5, 7-6(5) rising to his maiden Mutua Madrid Open final in a dizzying three hour, 35-minute classic match.

The 19-year-old Alcaraz made history as the first man to conquer king of clay Rafael Nadal and 20-time Grand Slam champion Djokovic in succession at a clay-court tournament.​ ​

"[Alcaraz] brings a lot of intensity on the court. Reminds me of someone from his country that plays with a left hand (smiling)," Djokovic said. "If it comes to that match, that's the match that, you know, a lot of people want to see. It's definitely the biggest challenge for me, you know, so far in the tournament. If you want to be the best, you have to beat the best.

"He's definitely a guy to beat here. I'm looking forward to that. But, he has to win against Tsitsipas, let's not forget about that. We cannot disrespect Stefanos who has played finals here and is top, top player for many years."

Tennis Express

Staring down double break point in the fifth game, Djokovic fired a forehand winner to save the first then won a punishing extend rally to erase the second break point.

On his third break point, Khachanov had a wide-open court but botched a smash wide of the sideline though both men initially were walking off believing the smash was good. Hawk-Eye replay showed it caught the edge of the line, but chair umpire James Keothavong checked the mark and ruled it was wide.

Shaking it off, Khachanov clubbed a heavy diagonal forehand converting his fifth break point to end a physical game for a 3-2 lead.

The bearded Russian in the backward baseball cap continued taking cracks backing up the break at 15.

The third seeded Serbian put too much air under a drop shot, Khachanov ran it down and flicked a fine touch forehand for a second set point. Djokovic slid a serve winner to save it. Djokovic held firm for 4-5.

On his fourth set point, Khachanov rattled out an errant backhand return to wrap the 56-minute opener. It snapped a six-set slide for the Russian against Djokovic as Khachanov won a set from the Serbian for the first time since his three-set loss in the 2022 Belgrade semifinals.

As the second set progressed, Djokovic was getting more looks on return, but a tenacious Khachanov navigated some tense holds to stay in step. Through the first two hours of play, Khachanov denied Djokovic a single break point.

Though his first-serve was fleeing control, Khachanov met a deuce test torching a forehand winner down the line for ad-in only to double fault. Khachanov drew a scattered forehand, holding firm to force the second-set tiebreaker.

Dabbing a drop shot winner to open the tiebreaker, Djokovic drilled some of his fastest strikes of the match, including a forehand winner down the line and a ballistic backhand winner seizing a 6-0 breaker lead.

Finishing with a flourish, Djokovic carved out a forehand drop shot then blocked a backhand volley winner to level the match after two hours, three minutes. Playing with poise and control, Djokovic improved to 5-0 in Roland Garros tiebreakers this fortnight.

That tiebreaker triumph empowered Djokovic to swing more freely, drive the ball with more authority and minimize the moon balls he was looping up in the second set.

Dialing in, Djokovic immediately put the screws to Khachanov's serve to start the third set. Howling after an error, Khachanov faced a third break point of the game.

Displacing the big man with depth, Djokovic caressed a dropper that kissed the top of the tape and fell over. The two-time champion converted his first break of the day.

After that tentative opening set, Djokovic geared up his game and was playing more energized and inspired tennis.

Shots were flowing like all the right answers on a test as Djokovic streamed forward and slammed down a smash sealing the third set with his this straight love hold. Djokovic stormed through 15 consecutive points on serve, winning 16 of 18 points on serve in that third set.

Serving up 2-1 in the fourth set, Djokovic was severely tested in a five-deuce. The pair went nose-to-nose at net with Khachanov reflexing back a volley then racing for a tweener passing shot. Djokovic was in position but bungled the volley into net as Khachanov bounced around the terre battue like a trampoline exhorting the loud crowd to erupt even more.

Soothing stress, Djokovic broke the big man's back dripping a beautiful backhand drop shot winner sparking a roar from the crowd as the Serbian held for 3-1 with an index finger raised high in the sky.

Though this quarterfinal seemed firmly in the third seed's grip, Khachanov wasn't done. When Djokovic hit his fifth double fault to cede the break, Khachanov was all even at 4-4.

The 11th-seeded Khachanov could not capitalize on that good fortune. Djokovic burned the big man with touch and angle on a cat-and-mouse exchange then boomed back a return drawing the error to break again for 5-4.

Djokovic burst through eight straight points pumping his 11th ace to close in three hours, 38 minutes.


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