Smashing success: Djokovic beats Zverev, into Australian SF

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Serbia's Novak Djokovic smashes his racket during his quarterfinal match against Germany's Alexander Zverev at the Australian Open tennis championship in Melbourne, Australia, Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2021.(AP Photo/Andy Brownbill)

MELBOURNE – Novak Djokovic smashed a racket, sending a piece of the frame flying. Later, he plopped himself down right there at the back of the blue court, looking forlorn as can be.

He dropped the opening set against Alexander Zverev, one of the young guys trying to shove aside Djokovic and the rest of the Big Three. Djokovic trailed 3-0 in the third. And 3-0 in the fourth, too, eventually even facing a set point.

Ah, but this is Djokovic we're talking about, the ultimate competitor. And this is Djokovic at the Australian Open, where no man ever has been better. So, naturally, Djokovic pulled himself together and pulled out the victory, reaching his ninth semifinal at Melbourne Park by eliminating No. 6 seed Zverev 6-7 (6), 6-2, 6-4, 7-6 (6) on Tuesday night.

“I kind of regained my focus after I broke that racket. Things started to shift a little bit for me in a positive direction,” Djokovic said in his on-court interview in Rod Laver Arena about the way he mangled his equipment by hitting it against the court three times after netting a backhand return at 3-1 in the third set.

“It was a relief for me, but I wouldn’t recommend this kind of relief-channeling, if you want to call it,” Djokovic said later. “Of course I'm not proud of that, but you go through a lot of different emotions, you go through an inner battle. Everyone is different. I have my own demons that I have to fight with.”

Djokovic is closing in on a ninth championship in Australia, which would add to his own record for a man. And an 18th Grand Slam title overall, two fewer than rivals Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal (who plays in the quarterfinals Wednesday).

Both Djokovic and Zverev wore tape on their midsections Tuesday to help with abdominal issues; Djokovic was hurt during his third-round win against Taylor Fritz and said he hasn't been practicing as normal on his off-days.

Several leading men have been injured in Australia, and Djokovic thinks a big reason for that is the unusual circumstances of players' needing to quarantine for two weeks upon arrival in the country because of the strict COVID-19 pandemic regulations Down Under.