Djokovic has his eye on the prize

Novak Djokovic paying tribute to recently deceased friend Kobe Bryant by sporting a sweater emblazoned with the basketball legend's initials "KB" and his Lakers jersey numbers (8 & 24).
Novak Djokovic paying tribute to recently deceased friend Kobe Bryant by sporting a sweater emblazoned with the basketball legend's initials "KB" and his Lakers jersey numbers (8 & 24).PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Serb beats Raonic to set up Federer s-final, then sheds tears when asked about Bryant

MELBOURNE • Novak Djokovic yesterday kept his focus, despite the shock death of his "friend and mentor" Kobe Bryant on Sunday, to set up an Australian Open semi-final clash with Roger Federer.

Despite having trouble with his contact lenses, the world No. 2 tamed the big-serving Canadian Milos Raonic 6-4, 6-3, 7-6 (7-1) on Rod Laver Arena for his 10th victory in as many meetings.

He also maintained his bid for an eighth Melbourne Park crown and 17th Grand Slam title.

In his way tomorrow stands Federer, the holder of a men's record 20 Major titles.

They have played each other 49 times, with Djokovic in front 26-23. The pair, though, are all-conquering in Melbourne, sharing 12 of the last 14 titles between them and the Serb is anticipating another tight affair with one of tennis' "Big Three".

Federer saved seven match points in a five-set thriller against 100th-ranked Tennys Sandgren to scrape through 6-3, 2-6, 2-6, 7-6 (10-8), 6-3 earlier, a comeback Djokovic called "really amazing".

On the Swiss maestro, who at 38 is the oldest man to reach the last four of the Open since Australian Ken Rosewall 43 years ago, he said: "I have tremendous respect for Roger.

"He's still playing such great tennis and proving that he deserves to be up there. He's a great fighter. The match-ups I have had against Roger and Rafa (Nadal) have made me the player I am today. May the best player win."

He then turned emotional when asked about National Basketball Association great Bryant, who died in a helicopter crash on Sunday, along with eight others, including his daughter Gianna.

Tearing up, he said: "He was one of the greatest athletes of all time, he inspired myself and many other people around the world.

"I had the fortune to have a personal relationship with him over the past 10 years. When I needed some advice and some support he was there for me... it's just heartbreaking to see and to hear what has happened to him and his daughter."

 
 

While Djokovic is heavily fancied to progress on what is his "favourite court" - he has a combined 14-0 record in semi-final and final matches at the year's opening Slam - Federer's unshakeable belief means he cannot be discounted.

Revealing that he had played on against American Sandgren despite suffering a groin strain, Federer said: "(I thought) just let him finish me off in style, and he didn't do that. I'm incredibly lucky tonight, today - I don't even know what time it is."

Of his blockbuster meeting with Djokovic, the world No. 3 added: "Conditions suit us well here. Start the year strong. Probably something to do with court speed, feeling comfortable down here. It helps when you start the year off with a bang. We were able to do that quite a few times.

"Hopefully, we'll find out that it's (the injury) actually nothing bad, that it was just the groin that went really tight from playing a lot, who knows (from) what."

In the women's draw, world No. 1 Ashleigh Barty dismissed Czech Petra Kvitova 7-6 (8-6), 6-2 to reach the last four of her home Slam for the first time, sending hopes soaring of a first Australian winner since unseeded Chris O'Neil upset the odds in 1978.

 
 

She will be the favourite in tomorrow's match against Sofia Kenin, but the 21-year-old American's star is also on the rise, having reached her first Slam semi-final.

Her 6-4, 6-4 win over Tunisian Ons Jabeur ensures she will move up to 12th in the rankings, just three spots behind 23-time Major singles champion and compatriot Serena Williams.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 29, 2020, with the headline 'Djokovic has his eye on the prize'. Print Edition | Subscribe