In what he termed the biggest win of his career, Russian-Israeli Aslan Karatsev on Saturday beat world number one Novak Djokovic in the semifinals of the Serbian Open in Belgrade.
The 28th-ranked Karatsev saved 23 of 28 break points to advance to his second final of the year with a 7-5, 4-6, 6-4 victory, gaining a measure of revenge for his defeat by Djokovic in the last four of the Australian Open in February.
Karatsev rose from 114th in the world to inside the top 50 following his improbable run as a qualifier at the Australian Open; Djokovic won the tournament for a record ninth time.
“You have to put [in] like 200 percent to beat this guy; it’s like playing against a wall,” said Karatsev.
“This is definitely [the biggest win of my career]. It’s the World No. 1,” he added.
“I’m really happy, I put everything on the court. The match was long. I’m really happy with my performance today.”
Djokovic, the 2009 and 2011 champion at the event which is played at a venue that carries his name, surrendered a 3-0 advantage in the opening set as he dropped serve three times.
The Serb then fell 4-2 behind in the second but summoned his well-documented powers of recovery to win four straight games and send the match to a deciding set.
Dubai champion Karatsev fended off eight break points in the third set before winning Djokovic’s service game to move 4-3 ahead and leave the top seed on the brink.
Djokovic saved a match point down 5-3 to force Karatsev to serve it out. The third seed saved two further break points as he completed a landmark win after three hours and 25 minutes.
Karatsev, who is seeded three in the tournament, will face second seed Matteo Berrettini, the world number 10, in Sunday’s final after the Italian overcame Japan’s world number 126 Taro Daniel.
Following the match, Djokovic admitted he needs to work on his game ahead of next month’s French Open.
Djokovic commended the “bravery” of Karatsev and his “excellent play in the important moments” but revealed he felt “dizzy” in the third set.
The 27-year-old Karatsev became the first man to reach the semifinals on his Grand Slam debut in the Open era at the Australian Open in February. He later won his first ATP Tour title, beating Lloyd Harris in the Dubai final.
Karatsev plays for Russia but grew up and trained in Israel and speaks fluent Hebrew. He left Israel as a youth, and recent months have seen the leaders of the Israel Tennis Association shaking their heads at their failure to identify and nurture his talent.
Interviewed at the Australian Open, Karatsev was asked about his background, including his Jewish heritage and his years in Israel.
“Your family are Russian Jews?” he was asked. “Yes,” he said, “my grandfather from my mom’s side, yes.”
Karatsev was born in Vladikavkaz, Russia, but “I moved to Israel when I was three years old with my family and then I started to practice there, in Tel Aviv-Jaffa,” he said. “I grew up there, practicing there until 12 years old, and then I moved back to Russia with my father. Then I was living in Rostov… I was practicing there until 18 years old, then I started practicing in Moscow.”
He subsequently moved to Halle, in Germany, and then to Barcelona, and for the past three years has been training with coach Yahor Yatsyk in Minsk, Belarus, he said.
As a young, enthusiastic player in Israel, he met and played against Amir Weintraub, who would go on to become a top Israeli professional tennis player (with a highest world ranking of 161), according to the Hebrew-language One sports website.
Though he showed obvious potential, financial hardships kept Karatsev from advancing his natural talent, the site said, and he eventually returned to Russia with his father. His mother and sister remained in Israel.