WASHINGTON, June 6, 2018 (by Michael Dickens)
After unseeded Marco Cecchinato did the unthinkable and upset Novak Djokovic, 6-3, 7-6 (4), 1-6, 7-6 (11), to win their quarterfinal match at the French Open early Tuesday evening, the 25-year-old Italian who had not won a Grand Slam singles match until arriving at Roland Garros this week received a warm hug from his fallen opponent. Djokovic walked over to Cecchinato’s side of the net on Court Suzanne Lenglen to deliver congratulations. It was a kind gesture of sportsmanship that Cecchinato, ranked No. 72 but who will soon break into the Top 30, will long remember.
Soon, the 31-year-old Djokovic, seeded 20th at this year’s French Open, left the court waving to the crowd. The Serbian was dejected – more than a bit stunned – but still able to smile. It left the Sicilian-born Cecchinato, still wiping the dust of the terre battue from his kit after falling to the court in celebration, in the spotlight.
Then, as if on cue, former French tennis star Cédric Pioline began the obligatory on-court interview by reassuring Cecchinato, “You’re not dreaming.” The teary-eyed Cecchinato looked at Pioline and said, “Are you sure?”
Looking back at Cecchinato’s remarkable upset, Christopher Clarey, tennis columnist for The New York Times, described it this way: “Cecchinato played smart, often sparking tennis on this overcast day, hitting drop-shot winners in bunches and bold, one-handed backhands down the line. He frequently caught Djokovic leaning or moving the wrong way. Most important, Cecchinato did all this in the critical phases of the match despite lacking any experience in high-stakes duel at this level.”
During the amazing 24-point, fourth-set tie-break – which comprised more than 20 minutes of the three hour and 26 minute contest – Cecchinato saved three set points while Djokovic saved three match points. On the fourth match-point opportunity, Cecchinato hit a down-the-line backhand return that landed in the corner out of Djokovic’s reach. Suddenly, the match was over. There would be no fifth set opportunity for Djokovic to mount a comeback.
Later, during his post-match press conference, Djokovic said of Cecchinato, “He didn’t seem to be under the impression of the big stadium or the big match. He just held his nerves amazingly well in the important moments.”
Djokovic also articulated the agony he felt. “Any defeat is difficult in the grand Slams, but especially the one that came from months of build up. I thought I had a great chance to get at least a step further, but it wasn’t to be so. That’s the way it is,” he said.
Next, Cecchinato will play No. 7 seed Dominic Thiem in the semifinals. He’ll arrive as the first Italian since Corrado Barazzutti in 1978 to play in a Roland Garros semifinal, and also the lowest-ranked man to get this far in the French Open since Andrei Medvedev, who was ranked No. 100 in 1999, when he lost in the final to Andre Agassi. Meanwhile, Thiem is fresh off of beating No. 2 seed Alexander Zverev and will be playing in his third straight French Open semifinal. The winner likely will get a shot at No. 1 seed Rafael Nadal, who is aiming to raise his 11th Coupe des Mousquetaires trophy, in the final on Sunday.
Regardless of how the rest of Cecchinato’s French Open experience turns out – and don’t forget, he arrived 0-4 in Grand Slam play at the start of the fortnight and has since also beaten No. 10 seed Pablo Carreño Busta and No. 8 seed David Goffin – he’ll always have his remarkable victory over Djokovic, the 2016 French Open champion, to savor.
And, indeed, Marco, it wasn’t a dream.