Djokovic falters, Cecchinato soars in Open stunner
It was difficult to discern which was less likely: that 12-time major champion Novak Djokovic would falter in his French Open quarterfinal 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, Tuesday’s outcome 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 (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 semifinalist in 19 years and the first Italian man to make it that far at any major in 40 years.
“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 mph. It wasn’t easy. My hand was even shaking a little.”
Cecchinato (it’s pronounced cheh-key-NAH’-toe) 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?”
Consider: 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.
And: The 25-year-old from Sicily was suspended for 18 months and fined 40,000 euros (about $45,000) 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.