By Ian Ransom
MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Champion Novak Djokovic foiled a stirring fightback from Roger Federer to defeat the Swiss 6-1 6-2 3-6 6-3 at the Australian Open on Thursday and charge into a fifth successive grand slam final.
Storming to a two-set lead within an hour, Djokovic appeared destined to complete a stinging humiliation but the net-rushing Federer responded brilliantly in the third as a partisan crowd roared him on at a flood-lit Rod Laver Arena.
In a fourth set rivened by tension, Djokovic took Federer's serve in the eighth game, benefiting from a lucky netcord that gave him a crucial break point, and served out the match to love in two hours and 19 minutes.
"Definitely I've played an unbelievable first two sets but that's what is necessary against Roger," Djokovic said courtside after setting up his sixth final at Melbourne Park against either Andy Murray or Milos Raonic.
"I knew he was going to be aggressive and try to mix up his pace and come to the net.
"I executed everything perfectly. A two-set lead is more comforting but it was a battle in the end."
Djokovic continued his grand slam mastery of the 34-year-old Swiss, having beaten him in six of their previous seven matches at the majors, including last year's Wimbledon and U.S. Open finals.
The head-to-head record between the pair has now also swung symbolically in Djokovic's favor, with the Serb edging ahead 23-22 in their 45 matches.
The record 15th grand slam encounter between the pair was billed as a blockbuster but threatened to be a one-sided rout.
The 15,000 spectators barely had time to settle in their seats before Djokovic had sewn up the first set in 22 breathtaking minutes.
Usually a thing of beauty, Federer's backhand was a liability early on and he dropped serve for a second time with an unforced error after repeatedly coming off second best in the baseline rallies.
Djokovic was bullet-proof and crunched a huge serve down the 'T' to clinch the first set and send the 17-times grand slam champion back to his chair frowning.
The horror show quickly resumed for the Swiss, who was broken in the third game to love and again in the fifth. The set lasted scarcely 30 minutes.
As the players returned to court, the crowd clamored for a Federer comeback, and the Swiss rallied to pressure the Serb's serve in an epic sixth game.
Djokovic saved three break points but finally folded with a fourth as a net-rushing Federer forced a passing shot wide.
Serving at 5-3 for the set, Federer's wife Mirka could not watch as the Swiss battled to close it out but Djokovic fired a forehand long on the third set point to raise thunderous cheers from the terraces.
A rain-break only raised the tension as the players waited for the roof to close and then resumed to doggedly hold serve.
Trailing 4-3 on serve and under pressure, Federer made a desperate rush forward and Djokovic's shot clipped the net, the deflection causing the ball to whistle past the Swiss's racquet.
Federer threw caution to the wind by attempting a second-serve serve-and-volley but Djokovic blasted a marvelous cross-court return to capture the decisive break.
Closing out the match with a string of booming serves, Djokovic was left celebrating another memorable victory as he stood one win away from a record sixth title at Melbourne Park.
(Reporting by Ian Ransom, editing by Pritha Sarkar)