Novak Djokovic praised Serena Williams as one of the greatest athletes in history after a tough loss set back her bid to tie the all-time record for Grand Slam titles on Thursday.
Djokovic said Williams, who has been stuck on 23 major titles since 2017, needed to see the “larger picture” of her achievements following her defeat by Naomi Osaka at the Australian Open.
The 39-year-old’s Grand Slam tally is second only to the 24 held by Australia’s Margaret Court, including 13 won in the pre-1968 amateur era.
“I can empathise with Serena and what she’s going through,” Djokovic said.
“She’s such an amazing champion that inspires both male and female athletes around the world.”
He added: “But I think when you see a larger picture for her and everything that who she is, what she stands for on and off the court… she’s one of the greatest ever… athletes, not just tennis player.”
Williams looked stricken by her semi-final defeat by Osaka, and walked out of her press conference in tears after being asked if she had played her last Australian Open.
Djokovic, whose 17 Grand Slam titles place him just behind Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer’s jointly held record of 20, said he could “emphasise” with the American.
“When you’re chasing big things that are related to the history of the sport, obviously it has a lot of weight, a lot of pressure,” he said.
“And regardless of the amount of years that you have played on the tour and the experience that you have, you still feel it on your shoulders.”
“I’m just proud and honoured to be playing at the same time she does and to see her greatness, experience her greatness is a thrill,” added the Serb.
Djokovic ended the dream run of Russian qualifier Aslan Karatsev in the Australian Open semi-finals Thursday to maintain his bid for a record-extending ninth title.
The 33-year-old Serb, showing no ill-effects from an abdomen injury sustained in the third round, overwhelmed the 114th-ranked Karatsev 6-3, 6-4, 6-2 to reach his 28th Grand Slam final.
“This is the best I’ve felt in the entire tournament,” said Djokovic, who hit 30 winners and 17 aces.
“I could swing through the ball. No pain. The best match so far.”
Djokovic remains on course for his 18th Grand Slam trophy, nipping at the heels of rivals Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, who are on 20.
In his way will be either fourth seed Daniil Medvedev or Nadal’s conqueror Stefanos Tsitispas, the fifth seed, a clash Djokovic said he was eagerly anticipating.
“I’m going to take the popcorn and enjoy it,” he said. “I absolutely have zero preference.
“I thought Stefanos did incredibly well to hang in there because Rafa was playing amazing,” added Djokovic.
Medvedev is the guy. He is playing at the highest level the last three months.”
Djokovic, who hasn’t been practising between matches because of his injury, said he hoped to train before the final.
“Probably more likely (to train) on Saturday,” he said. “Recovery is priority right now. I’m feeling the ball well and playing well.”— AFP