Novak Djokovic overcame a troubled build-up and a nervy first set to defeat Tommy Paul and reach his 10th Australian Open final.
The Serbian will take on Stefanos Tsitsipas on Sunday in his 33rd grand slam final bidding to equal Rafael Nadal’s record tally of 22 titles, while the winner will overtake Carlos Alcaraz as world number one.
His 7-5 6-1 6-2 victory over American Paul looks straightforward on the scoreboard but it certainly did not feel that way when Djokovic lost four games in a row from 5-1 up in the opening set.
The 35-year-old had steam-rollered Alex De Minaur and Andrey Rublev in the previous two rounds but did not look settled from the start here, perhaps a legacy of the events of the past 24 hours after his father was filmed with Vladimir Putin supporters at Melbourne Park on Wednesday.
Srdjan Djokovic released a statement on Friday saying he had been unwittingly caught up in the demonstration as he took pictures with his son’s fans but had decided not to attend the match to ensure there was “no disruption”.
Djokovic himself offered no comment on the incident but it would certainly have added a sour note to what has generally been a very positive return to Australia following last year’s deportation.
At times it has felt like a love-in for the Serbian on Rod Laver Arena, with his fans packing the stadium to welcome him back.
It was different here, though, with support for first-time slam semi-finalist Paul growing as he threatened to do the unthinkable in the first set.
Djokovic looked nervous to begin with but was not punished, saving two break points in the opening game and coming out on top in all the big moments to move into a 5-1 lead.
He then got into a row with umpire Damien Dumusois around when to start the shot clock and remarkably lost 11 of the next 13 points, dropping serve twice in succession.
But Paul was unable to hold his own serve to force a tie-break and, to boos from the crowd, Djokovic returned to his seat gesturing for the noise to get louder.
Winning the opening set allowed Djokovic, who again showed no sign of being bothered by his left hamstring issue, to loosen up a little.
He broke serve at the start of the second set and from there Paul, who is a willing runner with a fine backhand but no big weapons, was unable to land more than a fleeting blow on Djokovic.
The 35-year-old set a new record of 27 straight match wins here and now faces a rematch of the 2021 French Open final, when he came back from two sets down to defeat Tsitsipas.
“I’m just really pleased to get to another final,” said Djokovic. “I respect him [Tsitsipas] a lot, he has improved a lot over the years. I actually think he’s one of the most interesting guys on tour with his interests off court, his hairstyle. But it’s all business on Sunday. Let the best player win.”
In the day’s other semi-final, Stefanos Tsitsipas overcame a third-set wobble to defeat Karen Khachanov and reach his first Australian Open final.
The third seed has been a man on a mission all fortnight, troubled only by Jannik Sinner in the fourth round until now, and he looked set to cruise into the final as he stepped up to serve for a straight-sets victory.
But Russian Khachanov clung on, breaking Tsitsipas and then saving two match points in the third-set tie-break before the Greek eventually clinched a 7-6 (1) 6-4 6-7 (6) 6-3 victory.
The 24-year-old immediately recalled watching Cypriot Marcos Baghdatis reach the final here back in 2006, saying: “I dreamed as a kid to maybe one day to get to play on this court and compete with the best players in the world. It brings back memories of being a kid and watching it on TV and cheering him on.”
Tsitsipas will become world number one if he wins the title on Sunday, and he added: “I like that number. It’s a childhood dream to be world number number one. I am close and I am happy that this is coming in Australia, a place of significance for me. Let’s do it guys, let’s go.”
Tsitsipas had reached the last four in three of the last four years at Melbourne Park without going further, losing in 2019 to Rafael Nadal and in 2021 and 2022 to Daniil Medvedev.
He was not to be denied this time, though, and will now aim to go one better than his only previous slam final at the French Open in 2021, when he led Novak Djokovic by two sets to one but was eventually beaten.
He may well find the Serbian on the other side of the net again but will believe, if he can show the same form he produced for most of this contest, he can have a chance of pulling off the upset.
Tsitsipas will surely need to avoid the same lapses if it is Djokovic he faces, though, after also failing to serve out the opening set.
Having broken to lead 5-3, Tsitsipas played a poor game to drop serve and was then briefly in trouble at 5-5 after double-faulting when a second time violation resulted in him forfeiting a first serve.
He recovered to hold, though, and played a flawless tie-break to move in front.
Tsitsipas, who had won all his previous five matches against Khachanov, was the better player in the second set as well, finally breaking in the penultimate game, and he appeared poised for victory serving for the match at 5-4 in the third.
Khachanov rallied, though, breaking back and then producing two huge forehand winners when Tsitsipas moved 6-4 ahead in the tie-break.
The third seed appeared rattled and drove a forehand long to hand the set to Khachanov, but he regrouped quickly with a break at the start of the fourth and this time held onto it.
The result means a second successive semi-final exit at a slam for Khachanov, who was cheered on by a number of fans waving Armenian flags following his public support for the breakaway region of Artsakh.