NOVAK Djokovic was not only the sentimental favourite in his home tournament of the Serbia Open, but the raging one as well, as only one other Top 20 player was at the event with the world number one. Unfortunately he ran into a Russian rank in the form of world number 28, Aslan Karatsev whose 2021 form could be an incredible movie.
The 27-year-old Russian came into 2021 with an ATP Tour record of 3-10 across his entire career, but soon caught the eyes – and hearts – of the world with a stunning run to the semi-finals at the Australian Open. In just three months, he had not only tripled his total ATP Tour wins, but balanced the ledger and moved ahead to a 17-14 record heading into the ATP 250 Serbia Open.
Having lost to Djokovic in the Australian Open semi-final, Karatsev had to pull out every trick in the book to kept powering away at the world number one’s wall, to win in a whopping three hours and 25 minutes. The Russian’s win was the longest match of the season in a non-Grand Slam event, and he managed to save 23 of the 28 break point opportunities created by Djokovic to win 7-5 4-6 6-4 at the stadium named after his opponent, the Novak Tennis Centre.
“It was a long, tough match [against a] tough opponent,” Karatsev said post-match. “You have to put [in] like 200 per cent to beat this guy, it’s like playing against a wall. And he also made some good shots. “He doesn’t give you any free points. “He always makes you play and you have to be always there because once you miss a couple of shots, he just takes it very quickly. “That’s how I lost the second set.”
For the world number one, it was a disappointing result and knew it meant he missed on a potential third trophy at the event.
“You never like losing at home, that is for sure. It is disappointing. I don’t feel so great now but, at the same time, I have to congratulate Karatsev who played very bravely,” Djokovic said post-match. “Whenever he needed to come up with the best shots, he did. Congratulations to him. [It was an] awesome performance from his side.”
Now Karatsev will face second seed Matteo Berrettini for the title after the Italian ended the run of Japanese lucky loser Taro Daniel in three sets. Berrettini had some incredibly one-sided sets either side of a tight tiebreaker to put away his opponent, 6-1 6-7 6-0. The match lasted two hours and seven minutes, with the Italian second seed serving up 10 aces and winning 79 and 60 per cent of his first and second serves. For Daniel, it was a gallant run to the semi-finals after losing in qualifying, but the world number 126’s luck eventually ran out.
In Barcelona, for all the anticipation and upsets, the two semi-finals went fairly one way as the top two seeds booked their spots in the ATP 500 event. Tournament favourite Rafael Nadal is now one win away from his twelfth title at the event, downing sixth seed compatriot Pablo Carreno Busta 6-3 6-2. The world number three will face Greek star Stefanos Tsitsipas, who knocked off Italian young gun Jannik Sinner in a similarly one-way result, 6-3 6-3.
SERBIA OPEN SEMI-FINALS RESULTS:
 Aslan Karatsev (RUS) defeated  Novak Djokovic (SRB) 7-5 4-6 6-4
 Matteo Berrettini (ITA) defeated [LL] Taro Daniel (JPN) 6-1 6-7 6-0
BARCELONA OPEN SEMI-FINALS RESULTS:
 Rafael Nadal (ESP) defeated  Pablo Carreno Busta (ESP) 6-3 6-2
 Stefanos Tsitsipas (GRE) defeated  Jannik Sinner (ITA) 6-3 6-3
Picture credit: Pedja Milosavljevic/AFP via Getty Images