As far as grand slam semi-finals go, yesterday’s tussle between Novak Djokovic and Stan Wawrinka was certainly one of the most bizarre ones witnessed in recent years.
After delivering two sensational five-setters in the last two Australian Opens, Djokovic and the defending champion failed to live up to their glorious past as they stumbled through three and a half hours of disconnected tennis before the world No1 came through 7-6 (1), 3-6, 6-4, 4-6, 6-0.
Wawrinka, whose failure to defend his title means he will drop from No4 to No9 in the world rankings, had one word to describe the match: “strange,” stated the Swiss.
“Not the best, for sure.”
Playing his first night session of the tournament, Wawrinka admits he struggled to adapt early on with the change in conditions compared to his previous morning matches. Despite that, it was he who had the better start, breaking for a 4-3 lead in the first set on a wide crosscourt forehand from Djokovic.
Djokovic broke to love immediately though and the set went to a tiebreak. A good challenge from the Serb showed that a Wawrinka backhand was just wide and that opening point set the tone for the rest of the breaker. Wawrinka hesitated at the net the next point to get lobbed by Djokovic and the world No1 raced to a one-set lead.
Many thought that the tense opening set would lead to some looser tennis from both moving on, but the level of tennis just got weirder and the decision-making and shot selection from either side only got worse.
Wawrinka broke Djokovic on a double fault to lead 4-2 and he went on to take the second set to level the match.
Djokovic, a four-time champion in Melbourne, saved two break points to hold in the opening game of the third before rushing to a 3-0 lead.
Wawrinka struck back to level for 3-all but an error-strewn 10th game gave the break and the set to Djokovic.
The pair exchanged breaks early in the fourth but it was Wawrinka who benefitted from a disaster of a seventh game to break and he took the fourth set, which saw a shocking zero winners and 14 unforced errors from Djokovic.
A lengthy first game in the decider saw Djokovic save a break point to hold, and the top seed never looked back, taking advantage of a Wawrinka meltdown to hand the Swiss a bagel and end his title defence.
“It was mentally, I think I'm paying the price to finish off the season with Davis Cup, not having a bigger offseason, trying to focus really well to start well the year with winning Chennai and being here trying to do the best,” confessed Wawrinka, who was on an 11-match winning streak heading into the match.
“I told my coach before the match and already yesterday that I was mentally completely dead and no battery. Tough to focus on what I want to do. Tough to focus on my game. And that's what happened today.”
Djokovic, who will now try to capture a fifth Australian Open crown in his fifth final appearance here when he takes on Andy Murray tomorrow, did not sense that Wawrinka was struggling mentally, but admits he wasn’t able to play anywhere near his best level.
“I did not play on the level that I intended before the match,” said the 27-year-old.
“There were parts of the match where I stepped in and played a game I needed to play, but parts of the match where I played too defensive and allowed him to dictate the play from the baseline.
“He has great depth in his shots. Once he has control of the rallies it's very difficult to play against him. So, yeah, it was very emotional, very tense.”
He says he will focus on the positives though heading into his final with Murray, who has played at an impeccable level so far this fortnight.
“I think I have much more positive things to reflect on in my game and then all the matches that I played so far in the tournament than the negative,” said Djokovic.
“I'm in the finals. In the end of the day, that's why I'm here to try to get far in the tournament.
“Getting to the finals in any way possible is a great achievement. I'm going to try to use that to buildup of the confidence for finals.”