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.”
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.
NADAL’S OWN NOVELTY
The biggest upset at the 2018 men’s Roland Garros tournament was not Marco Cecchinato over Novak Djokovic. It was something much bigger: Through the first six rounds of play, the men produced a better, more interesting, more compelling tournament than the women. That hadn’t happened in a few years. The 2017 Australian Open was great on both the men’s and women’s sides. The last time the men were unambiguously better than the women? If you have a clear answer, good for you, but it won’t come from the past three years. The men have occasionally matched the women and usually fallen short.
At Roland Garros in 2018, the men were better. (more…)
WOMEN’S TENNIS: THIS KIND OF SOCIALISM WORKS
Socialism sounds good in theory but never ends up well in practice, they say.
“They” obviously aren’t watching women’s professional tennis these days.
Remember when Serena Williams continued and extended her control over the WTA Tour at the 2017 Australian Open, following a 2016 run in which she made three major finals and a fourth semifinal? That 2016 season was also a campaign in which Angelique Kerber reached three major finals and won two. Not a lot of sharing happened on the WTA Tour, and when Serena lifted her 23rd major crown in Melbourne, it seemed that women’s tennis would remain a monarchy run by Serena, not a democracy in which various players had an equal say in the year’s most important tournaments.
Then came Serena’s pregnancy, and in a heartbeat, the WTA became a vast expanse of questions and uncertainties.
We have seen on the ATP Tour how the injury-based absences of top players have created voids — not only in terms of consistent results at majors, but also the overall quality of play. This just-concluded French Open was one of the ATP’s better majors in a while, but over the past two years, men’s tennis at the Grand Slam tournaments has been largely dreary and uninspiring. Most finals have been numbingly predictable snoozefests, and without proven players to take charge in halves or quarters of draws, many random results — “someone will win because someone has to, not because someone is transcendent or special” — have proliferated. The 2017 Roland Garros tournament was like this. The 2017 Wimbledon tournament offered glimpses of such an identity. 2017 U.S. Open was the ultimate representation of this dynamic over the past 18 months. The 2018 Australian Open largely fit this description as well.
Missing the top stars the past 18 to 24 months has noticeably hurt the quality of the ATP Tour, so when Serena had to tend to the task of childbirth, everyone naturally wondered how women’s tennis would respond.
The results have been unpredictable, just as they have been with the men (hello, Sam Querrey making a Wimbledon semifinal; Kevin Anderson playing Pablo Carreno Busta in a U.S. Open semifinal; Hyeon Chung and Kyle Edmund making Australian Open semis; Marco Cecchinato making these just-concluded Roland Garros semis). However, women’s tennis has produced the compelling major finals men’s tennis has failed to deliver. Just compare the two Roland Garros finals we witnessed over the weekend.
More than that, women’s tennis is crowning the new champions men’s tennis is failing to produce.
Since the start of 2010, men’s tennis has created only three first-time major champions: Andy Murray at the 2012 U.S. Open, Stan Wawrinka at the 2014 Australian Open, and Marin Cilic at the 2014 U.S. Open.
Ever since Serena stepped away from the sport in early 2017, the WTA — in a span of five major tournaments — has exceeded the men’s total of first-time major winners this decade.
Jelena Ostapenko last year at Roland Garros; Sloane Stephens at the U.S. Open; Caroline Wozniacki in Australia; and Simona Halep this past Saturday in Paris have all crossed the threshold. If the men — #ATPLostBoys — can’t pass the baton to younger generations just yet, the WTA is doing exactly that, and in supremely entertaining fashion. What is even more noteworthy: The players at the center of the WTA’s balanced distribution of signature championships are removing significant what-if burdens from the sport.
Ostapenko is the outlier in the group, but Stephens has answered questions about who will be the next American player to follow in Serena’s footsteps — not to the same extent, of course, but certainly in terms of being a constant threat to do well at the biggest events in the sport.
In 2018, Wozniacki and Halep have both removed the eight most oppressive words in tennis or golf from their necks: “Best player never to have won a major.” The unpredictability we all expected in women’s tennis once Serena stepped away has been the happiest, most productive unpredictability one could imagine. The combination of entertainment value and redemptive stories has been off the charts.
The flow of life on the WTA Tour has been so cathartic and inspiring that after Wozniacki and Halep removed burdensome labels from their careers, there’s no similarly acute example remaining of a player currently in contention at majors who is trying to banish her demons. Karolina Pliskova, at 26, is the oldest player without a major in the current WTA top 10. As she gets to age 28 or 29, her story might become more poignant, but as someone who has made only two major semifinals and only one major final, Pliskova doesn’t have the accumulation of memorably painful defeats both Wozniacki and Halep absorbed before those two finally broke through. Wozniacki’s and Halep’s respective triumphs this year carried so much impact because the tennis world was aware how often they had climbed the hill, only to be knocked down to the valleys below. Pliskova’s story doesn’t carry the same weight — not yet. The WTA has written the two foremost feel-good stories it possibly could have authored in 2018.
The one still-active player on the WTA Tour who can legitimately claim to be the “Best Player Never To Have Won A Major” is Agnieszka Radwanska, now 29 years old. However, she is outside the top 25 and hasn’t been a top threat at the majors for roughly two years. (She lost to Serena in the 2016 Australian Open semifinals.) Among active players in contention at the year’s biggest tournaments, no first-time major hopefuls carry the promise of hope or the weight of longing to the degree Wozniacki and Halep offered.
In an age when so many sports teams — internationally and in America — are winning their first huge championships in their respective realms of competition, the WTA is in step with the times. That the WTA’s evolution has coexisted with a high quality of play and gripping major finals shows that this version of socialism — wide and relatively even distribution of resources — works in practice, not just in theory.
We will see at Wimbledon if it continues.
Testigos de la grandeza
Mientras veía a Rafael Nadal intentar completar el tercer set de la final masculina de Roland Garros a la vez que resistía un calambre en su mano izquierda, de repente, comprendí algo que me impactó: cada pequeño detalle debe darse para que un jugador encuentre el santo grial del tenis, también conocido como ganar un gran título de grand slam. No puede haber ningún accidente.
Ningún conductor ebrio, como el que frenó a Thomas Muster, ni un fanático desequilibrado, como el que interrumpió el curso de la vida de Mónica Seles. No puede haber ninguna lesión, como las muñecas vulnerables de Juan Martín Del Potro o ninguna distracción que pueda causar algún problema personal. Ni siquiera se puede sufrir un lapsus de concentración porque eso le abre la puerta a rivales hambrientos que siempre están trabajando para mejorar. (more…)