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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Emma Kemp at Melbourne Park

Stefanos Tsitsipas reaches final after arm-wrestle with Karen Khachanov

Stefanos Tsitsipas celebrates winning a point during his semi-final victory over Karen Khachanov in Melbourne
Stefanos Tsitsipas celebrates winning a point during his semi-final victory over Karen Khachanov in Melbourne. Photograph: Will Murray/Getty Images

To a sea of Greek flags and their holders chanting his name, next gen’s nearly man finally got over the line in an Australian Open semi-final. Since 2019 when, right here at Melbourne Park, Stefanos Tsitsipas upset Roger Federer en route to his first slam semi, he has made that tricky round four times. Three of those came at the Australian Open, his self-described home slam, but it was only the 2021 French Open at which he took the next step, before losing the final to Novak Djokovic after giving up a two-set lead.

As of Friday the 24-year-old can lay claim to a second final appearance, after arm-wrestling Karen Khachanov into submission for a 7-6 (2), 6-4, 6-7 (6), 6-3, a victory he has dreamed of since watching Marcos Baghdatis in his 2006 Australian Open final loss to Federer on TV as a child.

Compellingly, Tsitsipas will face Djokovic again, with the added carrot of the world No 1 spot up for grabs. “I like that number,” Tsitsipas said. “It’s all about you. It’s singular, it’s one. These are the moments I’ve been working hard for, to be able to play in finals like this.”

It did not come too easily for Tsitsipas, who had two match points in the third-set tie-break but ceded both as Khachanov engineered an unforeseen shift in momentum. Not to let the Russian dictate his fate, he briefly left the court to change his clothes and then the match, racing to a 3-0 fourth-set lead to ensure this would not be his last appearance on Rod Laver Arena.

“I thought how hard I’ve worked to get to this position and it takes a little bit more,” Tsitsipas said. “I wasn’t able to deliver that on the third set. But if you stick around, dedicate yourself even more and concentrate on this important moment even more, it pays off quite well. And always having that ambience in the background somewhere feels so good when I’m able to hit the ball and get such a reward back from the fans.”

Tsitsipas, the world No 4, has spent the past week becoming Australia’s adopted child, with his “crikey” and “ripsnorter” quips, hints he wants to move here and pledges to build a school in Victoria if he wins this tournament. If his reception on Friday was any indication, he can consider himself endeared. Melbourne’s big Greek community had their colours on and some held signs reading “The Greek God of tennis” and “No shampoo, only conditioner” in reference to Tsitsipas’s unique hair-care regime.

A spectator inside the Rod Laver Arena holds up the Greek flag in a show of support for Stefanos Tsitsipas during his semi final
A spectator inside the Rod Laver Arena holds up the Greek flag in a show of support for Stefanos Tsitsipas during his semi final. Photograph: David Gray/AFP/Getty Images

And for two and a half hours he rode that wave, utilising his punishing forehand as much as humanly possible and often running around the ball to hit his groundstrokes from his stronger side. Khachanov, conversely, had more joy with his favoured backhand and tried to draw his opponent into crosscourt battles throughout a multi-dimensional opening set featuring four breaks of serve.

Tsitsipas, in his previous five rounds at Melbourne Park, had been broken on only six occasions. Kachanov made it seven, and then eight, both times just to get proceedings back on serve. It seemed each moment Tsitsipas was up a break in and in control he committed a time violation or a foot fault. By the middle of the second set he had foot-faulted so many times it became clear he was confused about which was the offending foot and where it was over-stepping.

Eventually the chair umpire called out “Stefanos, it’s the centre line”. By that point he had already fashioned five set points and converted the second during the first-set tie-break, and went on to clean up the second, receiving second serves well beyond the baseline to generate more pace on his returns.

But Kachanov, too, was returning second serves with interest. The 26-year-old is used to hanging in there; he is well-acquainted with the figurative long haul. Against Jason Kubler a few days ago he played a 70-shot rally, and in last year’s US Open semi-final traded 55 shots with Casper Ruud. Finally, towards the end of the third set, the 18th seed started to produce his best tennis.

Tsitsipas, up 5-4 and serving for the match, pushed hard to end his sweat-inducing shift in the afternoon sun but brazenly botched a smash. His coaching team, namely father Apostolos and Mark Philippoussis, ceased their wild gesticulating, as if sensing this moment would turn the tide. They watched as Khachanov broke back and then, in the subsequent tie-break, saved a match point and then another via a dangerous shot that barely grazed the baseline. That sparked a run of four points in his favour to steal the set. Tsitsipas forced himself to be content with the scenic route, and then made sure he ended the sightseeing expedition at the next time of asking.

“I’m extremely happy that I’m in the final now, and let’s see what happens,” he said. “I’m close, and I’m happy this opportunity comes here in Australia and not somewhere else, because this is a place of significance. So let’s do it guys, let’s go.”

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