Karatsev Saves 23 Break Points To Stun Djokovic In Belgrade Epic

Russian wins longest ATP Tour match of the year against Djokovic

Third seed Aslan Karatsev clinched the biggest victory of his career against World No. 1 Novak Djokovic, triumphing in a three-hour and 25-minute lung-buster on Saturday to reach the championship match at the Serbia Open.

Taking on the top seed at his namesake Novak Tennis Centre in Belgrade, Karatsev stayed calm in the decisive moments to save 23 of the 28 break points he faced against Djokovic, one of the best returners in the game. Karatsev stuck to his aggressive strategy to survive a second-set comeback and record a 7-5, 4-6, 6-4 stunner.

“It was a long, tough match [against a] tough opponent,” Karatsev said in his post-match press conference. “You have to put [in] like 200 per cent to beat this guy, it’s like playing against a wall. And he also made some good shots. He doesn’t give you any free points. He always makes you play and you have to be always there because once you miss a couple of shots, he just takes it very quickly. That’s how I lost the second set.”

Top 5 Longest ATP Tour Matches Of 2021

 Winner Opponent Tournament  Score   Match Time 
 Aslan Karatsev   Novak Djokovic   Belgrade  7-5, 4-6, 6-4  3hr, 25 min 
 Norbert Gombos  Federico Delbonis   Marbella   5-7, 7-6, 7-6   3 hr, 20 min
 Ilya Ivashka  Soonwoo Kwon  Miami  7-6, 6-7, 7-6  3hr, 18 min
 John Millman  Federico Coria  Cagliari   7-6 3-6, 6-3  3 hr, 14 min
 Marton Fucsovics   Thanasi Kokkinakis  Miami  7-6, 6-7, 6-4  3 hr, 11 min

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Karatsev improved to 1-1 in his ATP Head2Head against Djokovic, avenging his straight-sets defeat in the 2021 Australian Open semi-finals. The Russian will face second seed Matteo Berrettini for a shot at winning his second tour-level trophy.

“I stepped on the court to win. I was believing [in myself], and I said to myself that I would play every ball no matter what,” Karatsev said. “I tried to keep this strategy that we spoke about with the coach. You have to fight for every ball, that was the key to success.”

Djokovic powered his way to 2-0 leads in the first two sets against the reigning Dubai champion Karatsev, who burst onto the scene at the Australian Open with a breakthrough semi-final fun from qualifying. But in both sets, Karatsev didn’t allow Djokovic to settle into the lead, breaking back quickly and pressing the Serbian from the baseline with punishing rallies.

After Karatsev claimed the opening set, he looked to be closing in on a straight-sets win as he took a 4-2 lead in the second. But the World No. 1 responded emphatically, raising his level and rallying the limited spectators in Belgrade as he reeled off the next four games in a row. He was nearly untouchable in the final game, blasting passing shots off both wings to battle back from 15/40 and claim the break.

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But in a 73-minute deciding set that came down the wire, it was Djokovic who blinked first. Karatsev took time away from his opponent by going to net regularly and closing out points with smart forehand drive volleys. He also honed in on the Djokovic second serve, winning 52 per cent of points (23/44) behind the Serbian’s second delivery. Karatsev earned the lone break at 4-3, denying Djokovic 10 break points in the final set en route to the final.

“This is definitely [the biggest win of my career], it’s the World No. 1,” Karatsev said. “I’m really happy, I put everything on the court. The match was long. I’m really happy with my performance today.”

With his fifth tour-level clay-court victory, Karatsev snapped Djokovic’s 11-match winning streak on home soil (30-4 overall) dating back to Davis Cup in 2011. Djokovic, who added a record-extending ninth Australian Open trophy to his haul earlier in the season, was looking for his 83rd ATP Tour title. 

In the second semi-final, second seed Berrettini weathered a mid-match dip against lucky loser Daniel, but bounced back to secure a place in the championship match with a 6-1, 6-7(5), 6-0 victory.

“The last matches of the tournament are the toughest, so congrats to Taro for his tournament,” Berrettini said. “I think he played a really good game when I served for the match in the second set. And then… tennis, it’s a crazy sport! That’s why we’re here.”

The Italian routed Daniel in the opening set, and took an early lead in the second. But he was broken while serving at 5-4 as his opponent raised his level, dropping the set in a tight tie-break. Berrettini stayed calm to take the next six games, closing it out in two hours and 10 minutes to reach his first tour-level final since 2019 Stuttgart.

“I’m really happy because I had a great reaction in the third, it’s never easy to [not] think about what happened. But tomorrow I’m going to play the final, so for sure I’m happy.”