Cecchinato downs Djokovic, continues dream run

 - Alex Sharp

The Italian world No.72 had never won a Grand Slam main draw match prior to his run in Paris.

Marco Cecchinato poing serré©Philippe Montigny / FFT

Unseeded Marco Cecchinato created a seismic shock to defeat 2016 champion Novak Djokovic 6-3 7-6(4) 1-6 7-6(11) and clinch a debut Grand Slam semi-final at Roland Garros.

“I think it will change my life. After Roland-Garros, I need some rest to realise the moment,” Cecchinato said, scrabbling for words to describe the magnitude and timing of the occasion.

“It’s so special for me, I don’t know why now, I work very hard with my team, and I'm very focused every match. I work out every day on preparation and also in the tournament. So I think this is the key.”

The Italian hadn’t won a main-draw match at a major prior to his trip to Paris, but built on victories over No.10 seed Pablo Carreno Busta and No.8 seed David Goffin to topple the 12-time Grand Slam champion on his fourth match point. In doing so, the 25-year-old is the first Italian man to feature in a Grand Slam semi-final since Corrado Barazzutti at Roland Garros in 1978.

With such a landmark moment at stake, Cecchinato looked far from intimidated duelling on the dirt with the 68-time titlist, with an array of disguised drop shots and rasping backhands arrowing down the line opening up a 3-1 break lead.

Djokovic appeared to be hampered by neck pain and following a medical timeout couldn’t prevent the 25-year-old serving out the opening set with consummate ease thanks to an ace.

Another sumptuous drop shot dinked over the net enabling the world No.72 to ramp up the pressure and claim an instant break. While a grimacing, aggressive Djokovic scored the break back, his frustrations mounted as three set points vanished at 6-5 and Cecchinato cracked an inside out forehand winner to force the tie-break.

The Italian later drove a forehand winner over the net post to take a two-set lead and a step close to the semis.

Ranked No.22 and playing at his lowest position since 2006, Djokovic broke early in the third set by ramping up his aggression and precision, while the shots Cecchinato was cracking in over the first two sets began to miss the radar. He cruised through eight consecutive games to dominate the third.

He also led 5-2 in the fourth set and served for it at 5-3, but a tight game culminated with Cecchinato clattering a forehand winner to steal back the initiative and force another tie-break.

It was a truly astonishing period of play, with the shot-making reaching a crescendo. The former world No.1 clipped a remarkable last-ditch backhand volley cross court to glance the line, whilst Cecchinato prevailed in an enthralling 25-shot rally.

“At the start, I think ‘this is Novak’, in the tie-breaks, every set I think, ‘this is Novak,” said Cecchinato, admitting Djokovic’s aura intensified the match. “But I was very focused on every points. I played very, very good points on match point.”

Three Djokovic sets points were surrendered, three Cecchinato match points vanished, but Djokovic eventually darted in to net, at which point Cecchinato dispatched a backhand passing shot winner and fell to the dirt in tears.

“On the return, when I saw it on the line, it was the best moment of my life,” Cecchinato revealed with a smile on his face in press, having become the lowest ranked Roland Garros semi-finalist since world No.100 Andrei Medvedev in 1999.

“We shared the moment after my victory. Novak is a very good person and is unbelievable for me. Novak change the court (swapped sides) and he told me, ‘Congrats, man, it is unbelievable for you and good luck.’ Is a dream for me!”

The Italian’s reward is a final four showdown with Dominic Thiem, who dispatched second seed Alexander Zverev in straight sets on Court Philippe-Chatrier.

“I won the last match against Thiem, I think, I remember this match, it was the final in one Future,” quipped the world No.72, referring to his 2013 triumph in Italy, but forgetting a defeat in Doha qualifying the following year at the hands of the Austrian.

“Why not? I want to believe I can also beat Dominic Thiem.”