Marco Cecchinato, a man who has lived under the cloud of match-fixing allegations for two years, emerged into the sunshine here on Tuesday when he produced the best tennis of his career to put Novak Djokovic out of the French Open – and possibly out of Wimbledon.
Djokovic, struggling with an injury to his serving shoulder, was devastated on court and clearly upset afterwards. “I don’t know if I’m going to play on grass,” he said. “I don’t know what I’m going to do. I cannot give you any answer. I’m just not thinking about tennis at the moment.”
He looked shattered by the experience – but the day belonged to Cecchinato, an underdog from central casting.
The Sicilian created mayhem, drama and history when he outlasted the once inexhaustible 12-slam champion 6-3, 7-6 (4), 1-6, 7-6 (11), in just-under-three-and-a-half hours to reach the semi-finals. There he will meet the world No 8 Dominic Thiem, who earlier saw off an injured Alexander Zverev in straight sets.
Cecchinato in 2016 was convicted of match-fixing but had the ruling overturned on a technicality and here has embraced the experience like an ingenu – as he should, having lost all four of his grand slam matches. “Maybe I’m sleeping,” he said courtside. “He’s amazing. It’s unbelievable to beat Novak Djokovic in the quarter-finals at Roland Garros. I don’t understand nothing. I was so tired but I won the match, and it’s amazing. For me it’s a first semi-final of a grand slam. Now I need some rest for recovery. I am very happy.”
Djokovic, who memorably came from two sets down to beat a rampant Roger Federer in the 2011 US Open semi-finals, could not replicate those heroics against the world No 72.
The Serb had his chances to force it to a fifth set, 4-1 up in the fourth, and three set-points in the tie-break – but two glaring errors cost him. He butchered a simple volley on a set point that sailed into the stands – provoking a desperate castigation of the crowd – then, on the third match point, he allowed Cecchinato’s fine but gettable shot down the line to sail to safety past his impotent racket. It was a curiously downbeat end to a passage of tennis to rank with any of recent times.
In the first two hours Cecchinato was inspired and in the final half or so he returned to those levels against probably the greatest survivor in modern tennis. He had won only one five-setter in his life – coming from two sets down to beat the unseeded Romanian Marius Copil here in the first round – while Djokovic had won 29 of 37, and four times had recovered from 2-0 down.
When Cecchinato dumped a backhand on the way to going two games behind in the fourth, he roamed the baseline, ranting in Italian, “Lamentevole, Lamentevole … [everything’s lamentable … everything, everything]”. He would be smiling widely soon enough.
Zverev, meanwhile, leaves Paris weary but unbowed after his resistance finally cracked and with his friend Thiem is in the semi-finals for the third year in a row. The German, though, must first inspect a strained hamstring that neutered his movement and power from the third game onwards.
“I definitely thought about it,” Zverev said when asked if he considered quitting. “But I didn’t want to pull out for the first time of my career in a grand slam quarter-final. I could barely move. I couldn’t serve. I couldn’t really do anything.”
It was Zverev’s twin misfortune to find the Austrian strong and in near-perfect touch on a day when his own body finally gave up on him after dragging himself into the quarter-finals through three five-setters, two of which he had to win from two-sets-to-one down. Time finally ran out for him on a cool and cloudy afternoon, Thiem wrapping it up in an hour and 50 minutes, 6-4 6-2, 6-1.
Nobody in the modern era has won four five-set matches in a row – and Zverev did well to get this far, but when he got injured in the first set, his mission against the world No 8, the only player to have beaten Rafael Nadal on clay in the past couple of seasons, moved from monumental to near impossible.
As the scoreline suggests, Zverev weakened from that point, although his resolve remained intact. Serving at 40-15 in the third game of the first set, he pulled up clutching the thigh. Thereafter, it was not a proper contest.
“It was very tough for him today,” Thiem said courtside. “He’s one of the fittest guys on tour but even for him it’s hard to win three five-setters in a row. I hope we have many more matches and we’re both 100 per cent. I love it so much here: third time semi-finals, it sounds so amazing. It’s time for more. I will give everything for one more step this year.” – Guardian service