French Open: Italy’s Marco Cecchinato stuns Novak Djokovic to reach Roland Garros last four


Updated

June 06, 2018 08:59:10

It was difficult to discern which was less likely: that 12-time major champion Novak Djokovic would falter in his French Open quarter-final or that Marco Cecchinato, who never won a grand slam match until last week and once faced a possible ban for losing on purpose, would rise to the occasion.

Either way, the outcome of their Roland Garros matchup was stunning. To both men. And to anyone watching.

Djokovic, bothered by neck and leg problems, went from two sets down to the verge of forcing a fifth, but he frittered away good chances and in the end was beaten by the 72nd-ranked Cecchinato 6-3, 7-6 (4), 1-6, 7-6 (13/11) in a rollicking match filled with engaging exchanges and plenty of drama.

“A hard one to swallow,” a glum Djokovic acknowledged during a brief news conference, in which he delivered clipped answers and said he might not play during the upcoming grass-court season.

Cecchinato is the lowest-ranked French Open semi-finalist in 19 years and the first Italian man to make it that far at any major in 40 years.

“[It’s] the best moment of my life,” Cecchinato said.

Djokovic served for the fourth set at 5-3 — “I thought,” Cecchinato would say, “my Roland Garros was about to end” — but the 2016 French Open champion got broken.

Djokovic then held three set points in the tiebreaker — “I saw ghosts,” Cecchinato would joke — but couldn’t convert.

“A pity,” Djokovic said.

At 7-6 in the closing tiebreaker, he pushed a backhand long. At 8-7, Cecchinato ended a 20-stroke exchange with a swinging volley winner. At 9-8, Djokovic flubbed a forehand, knelt and clasped his hands together as if praying, then raised an index finger as if to plea, “Let me have ONE of these!”

“I had a lot of courage, especially toward the end of the tiebreaker,” Cecchinato said.

“I was cool. Clear-headed. My heart was beating 1,000 miles per hour. It wasn’t easy. My hand was even shaking a little.”

Cecchinato came through on his fourth match point, looping in a backhand return winner as Djokovic tried to surprise him with a serve-and-volley attempt.

The 25-year-old Cecchinato dropped onto his back on the clay, then sat in his sideline chair, bowed his head and cried.

Told in an on-court interview that he wasn’t dreaming, Cecchinato responded: “Are you sure?”

Dream result for Cecchinato after match-fixing furore

Consider that Cecchinato has never won a tour-level match on a surface other than red clay; as it is, he entered this season with a career record of 4-23 and entered this tournament with a grand slam record of 0-4.

Then there’s this: The 25-year-old from Sicily was suspended for 18 months and fined 40,000 euros ($61,535) by his national federation in July 2016 for allegedly fixing a match by losing at a lower-tier Challenger event in Morocco a year earlier.

Cecchinato appealed and, eventually, the Italian Olympic Committee announced that the sanctions were dropped on a technicality.

He has declined to discuss the case in Paris.

In the next round, Cecchinato will face number seven seed Dominic Thiem of Austria, who made it to his third consecutive French Open semi-final by beating number two seed Alexander Zverev of Germany 6-4, 6-2, 6-1.

As the score indicates, that was far less compelling, in part because Zverev felt pain in his left hamstring 10 minutes into the match and wound up having his leg taped by a trainer.

Zverev was coming off a trio of wins that went five sets and, while still just 21, could not will his body to another comeback.

That Cecchinato would be a semi-final participant was hard to predict.

In the first round at Roland Garros, he dropped the first two sets against Marius Copil, a player ranked 94th, before coming all the way back to win 10-8 in the fifth.

“Seems like a month ago,” Cecchinato said with a laugh, when he answered reporters’ questions in Italian, Spanish and English.

Since then, employing a smooth one-handed backhand, he has beaten players seeded number eight (David Goffin) and 10 (Pablo Carreno Busta), before adding Djokovic to his list.

Djokovic, who missed the last half of 2017 with right elbow trouble and had surgery in February, is clearly not at the height of his power. Indeed, his seeding of number 20 was his lowest at any grand slam tournament in a dozen years.

Djokovic, Cecchinato said, “seemed unsure of himself at the beginning”.

By the end, though, points were tight and taut, one even lasting 30 strokes. Djokovic actually won more total points, 144-140.

Somehow, Cecchinato won the one that mattered most, the last.

“I had to push. I knew I had to take risks,” Cecchinato said. “Because if I played just to stay in points, I could never beat Novak.”

AP

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First posted

June 06, 2018 08:08:19





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