Andrey Rublev is the sixth best tennis player in the world. He is hard-working and sincere, and with those qualities he has built a great career for himself at the top of his profession. At 25 years old, he is moving into his physical peak and he will be a factor at the top of the sport for many years to come.
Against the best, the very best, none of that means a thing. On Wednesday night, Rublev entered Novak Djokovic’s lair, night-time on Rod Laver Arena, and for two hours he stood helplessly on the baseline as the nine-time Australian Open champion tore him apart 6-1, 6-2, 6-4 to return to the semi-finals.
This is Djokovic’s 10th foray to the semi-finals of the Australian Open. 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, equalling Andre Agassi’s Open-era record.
Awaiting Djokovic in the semi-final is the 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, sending a message to the rest of the field, Rublev survived a five-set psychodrama of average quality against Holger Rune, recovering from double match-point down to win in a final set tie-break. As Rublev expressed concern about his next opponent, his voice shook with fear.
Over the past two weeks, the physical state of Djokovic’s hamstring has commanded significant attention. Early on, as it still warmed up, he moved tentatively on his backhand wing and in the fourth game he stumbled after trying to plant his left foot to strike an open-stance backhand.
His game is so complete that it did not matter. He has so many more strengths than Rublev and most others, so many more options. He served extremely well, he dominated the baseline with his forehand and he slipped into the net to play a few handsome volleys.
The most interesting aspect of those early stages was how Djokovic pursued a line of attack that most players try to avoid against Rublev: he constantly sought out Rublev’s forehand during their exchanges and methodically broke down the Russian’s famous strength. It was a successful tactic, but also a message, a reminder of his superiority in all parts of the court.
By his second service game, Rublev was already panicking. He punctuated an error-strewn game with a double fault to give away the first break at 3-1. Djokovic snatched the break and then continued to pile on relentless pressure throughout the match. His backhand soon shone – he deflected returns at his opponent’s feet and continually broke serve by standing on top of the baseline, relentlessly pounding forehands.
Despite the dominant scoreline, there were numerous tough, tight deuce games that Djokovic had to dig himself out of on his serve. But every time the moment required it of him, he found a brilliant serve or he seamlessly flipped defence to attack to escape.
This tournament marked Rublev’s seventh grand slam quarter-final and he is now 0-7 in these matches. For all of his positive qualities, compared with 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 neutralise his obvious strengths.
Few players in history have ever been as proficient at exposing weaknesses as Djokovic, and Rublev’s game did not stand up to his interrogation. It was another incredible performance, another exhibition of this tournament’s best-ever player in full flight and as he continues to manage his hamstring well, he has positioned himself for a monumental 10th Australian Open title.
As Djokovic faces Paul in their first meeting on Friday, Stefanos Tsitsipas will battle Karen Khachanov in the other semi-final, both hoping to reach the Australian Open final for the first time. It remains to be seen if there is anyone left who could offer anything more on the most important court of Djokovic’s career. Over the past 15 years, not many have.