Jane Voigt

This was not supposed to happen.

Marco Cecchinato, ranked number 72, defeated 12-time major champion Novak Djokovic, 6-3, 7-6(4), 1-6, 7-6(11) in the most improbable upset of the year. The quarterfinal victory for the Italian was as spectacular as it was unexpected. Cecchinato had never won a single match at any Grand Slam event before coming to Paris. Not one. Tuesday he advanced to the semifinals of Roland Garros.

He cried. His friends, family and coaching staff cried until he could compose himself and say a few words to exuberant fans inside Court Suzanne Lenglen.

“Did I beat Djokovic at Roland Garros?”, Cecchinato asked in disbelief. “Are you sure? I don’t understand nothing.”

Scorelines don’t lie, though. Cecchinato, who became the first Italian man in 40 years to reach a semifinal at Roland Garros, fell to the court, arms and legs spread out in a big “X” the moment Djokovic’s last shot was called out. 

“I start very well,” Cecchinato told fans, in his limited English. “All my serve. I don’t understand nothing.”

Not many tennis observers can, either.

In defeat, Djokovic was magnanimous toward Cecchinato. The Serbian No. 20 seed crossed the net and hugged the victor.

“It’s never been hard for me to congratulate and hug the opponent that just we shared a great moment on the court,” Djokovic said to the press immediately after leaving the stadium. “And the one that won deserved to win the match. He’s a great guy. On the other hand, when you walk off the court, of course, it’s a hard one to swallow.”

On court, meanwhile, an amazed Cecchinato continued, as best as he could, to answer questions from former French tennis player Cedric Pioline.

“On the tiebreak maybe two or three match points down,” he began. “I was so tired but I won the match. Now I need to think for the semifinal and some rest for the recovery.”

This quarterfinal was Djokovic’s ninth consecutive at Roland Garros and his third loss at this stage of majors in the past 12 months. He lost to Dominic Thiem a year ago in Paris and then to Tomas Berdych at Wimbledon in 2017. Tuesday’s loss seemed to clash with his expectations. 

“Yeah,” was all he said when asked a rhetorical question, “That makes it more heartbreaking?”

Djokovic did not think the defeat was the most painful in his career, but he did send a shockwave when he said, “I don’t know if I’m going to play on grass.” He wouldn’t confirm his answer, nor entertain a longer explanation. “I don’t know. I don’t know what I’m going to do. I just came from the court. Sorry, guys, I can’t give you that answer. I cannot give you an answer.”

TENNIS 2016:  Roland Garros  May 16
Both photos credit Leslie Billman tennisclix.com

Cecchinato’s opponent in the semifinal will be Dominic Thiem, who on Tuesday played his best match of the tournament to knock out second-seeded Alexander Zverev. Cecchinato’s match with Djokovic was their first meeting and the semifinal against Thiem will be their first in a main-draw big-league match. (They played a futures match in 2013 and an ATP Tour qualifier in 2014.) The Italian has spent some of the season on the Challenger Tour, but he performed well in Rome, scoring a win over Pablo Cuevas. In Munich, he beat Fabio Fognini.

With his ranking high enough for a direct entrance to the main draw, a series of wins began to put him in the spotlight. He beat David Goffin, the eighth seed, Monday, in the round of 16. In the third round Cecchinato defeated Pablo Carreno-Busta, the tenth seed. In his opening match in Paris, Cecchinato put his best foot forward to beat Marius Copil in five grueling sets, 10-8 in the fifth. He came from two sets down to win that match… now he is in the last four at Roland Garros. His five-match run through the tournament is as astonishing as his defeat of Djokovic in two tiebreakers, one of them an epic 24-point novella to finish the win in the fourth set.

If there ever was an ideal match for Djokovic to win, this was it on Tuesday. A dream come true, so to speak. Yet, he started slowly. He was cranky with chair umpire Carlos Ramos — who was heavily proactive in this match — and his right shoulder was tight. The trainer came out a couple times to massage it, but Djokovic never took a medical timeout.

“Djokovic is just a little bit off,” Justin Gimelstob said, calling the match for Tennis Channel. “He looks edgy as well.”

While Djokovic fretted, Cecchinato blasted off. Reminiscent of Stan Wawrinka in stature and style, the Italian’s one-handed backhand blasted balls and set up opportunities for drop shots as accurate as an atomic clock.

“Fearless,” Leif Shiras added on Tennis Channel.

“There it is again,” Chanda Rubin chimed in.

Cecchinato’s game had variety, athleticism and confidence. He hit winners on the run, getting to them as quickly as can be.

His momentum and rhythm were interrupted when he was given a warning and then a point penalty for coaching by the busy and intervening Ramos. After that he couldn’t find the court in the third set, as Djokovic’s serve improved in placement and consistency. In the fourth, Djokovic went up a break. It seemed like a foregone conclusion that the match would go five and that Novak’s experience would help him prevail. He led 5-2, and his opponent had temporarily lost the plot.

But just when a fifth set felt like a certainty, the progression of the match abruptly shifted. Djokovic served for the fourth set at 5-3 and was broken. Cecchinato had rediscovered the zone. He held for 5-5 and clawed back to take the set to a tiebreak.

The first set lasted 27 minutes. The fourth-set tiebreak went well over 20 minutes and was the supreme thrill of the match. Both players laid everything on the court. The rallies were long, the players being dragged over every inch of the court by each other. Djokovic saved three match points, but at 12-11 Cecchinato triumphed.

“How is it possible that this guy’s ranked 72 in the world?”, Jim Courier asked on Tennis Channel.

Had Djokovic not involved himself with petty grievances with the chair umpire — regardless of whether you think Carlos Ramos was right or wrong — and surgically removed a slight sliver of anxiety from his game, he could have taken the fourth and had another chance to set the record straight in a fifth set. He did not.

“Any defeat is difficult in the Grand Slams, especially the one that, you know, came from months of buildup,” Djokovic said. “And I thought I had a great chance to get a least a step further, but wasn’t to be. That’s the way it is.”

Cecchinato’s ranking will crack the top 32 after the tournament. He potentially could reach number 27. For Djokovic, his record for coming back in five sets at Roland Garros after losing the first two is now 1-7.

Many felt that Novak Djokovic was going to make a huge comeback this week in Paris, to the point that he would at least earn a Roland Garros rematch with Dominic Thiem, if not also Rafael Nadal.

That comeback bid was stopped. The larger comeback bid — and its estimated time of arrival — remain open to question.

There is no questioning the resolve of Marco Cecchinato.

A man who won five ATP World Tour matches from May 21, 2013, to April 30, 2018, has now won five matches at Roland Garros with spellbinding crunch-time tennis against one of the foremost champions of this or any age.

This wasn’t supposed to happen… but oh, what an improvised script Cecchinato wrote in Paris on an unforgettable Tuesday.


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