PARIS (Reuters) - When he qualified for the last eight at the French Open, Marco Cecchinato said it was the happiest day of his life. He might want to re-assess, after he downed 12-times major winner Novak Djokovic on Tuesday to become the first Italian man to reach a Grand Slam semi-final in 40 years.
Cecchinato cruised through the opening set as Djokovic was suffering from neck pain before the Serbian fought back after the loss of the second.
His opponent, however, was the stronger in an epic fourth-set tiebreak, prevailing 6-3 7-6(4) 1-6 7-6(11) on his fourth match point after more than three hours of high-octane tennis.
The last Italian man to take part in a major semi-final was Corrado Barazzutti at the 1978 French Open.
The unseeded Cecchinato, who broke down in tears after the match, next faces Austrian Dominic Thiem for a place in Sunday’s final.
“Are you sure I’m not dreaming?” Cecchinato, who was suspended for match-fixing in 2016 before being cleared on a technicality, told a courtside interviewer. “I understand nothing.”
“He held his nerves amazingly well in important moments,” said 2016 Roland Garros champion Djokovic, on the comeback trail after an injury-hit year.
World number 72 Cecchinato, the lowest ranked played to reach the last four in Paris since Andrei Medvedev in 1999, took early control of the match as he moved 4-1 and a break up, with 20th seed Djokovic calling in the trainer for treatment on a sore neck.
Prompted by the chair umpire to restart after the changeover, a nervous Djokovic snapped: “You have to take into consideration that he (Cecchinato) walked in 15 seconds early. Relax a little bit.”
Cecchinato stayed composed and bagged the set with an unreturnable serve, Djokovic getting more treatment on his neck before the second set started.
They traded breaks early before Cecchinato saved three set points at 6-5 to force a see-saw tiebreak. Cecchinato led 3-1, then found himself trailing 4-3 before pocketing the remaining points.
And Djokovic woke up, blazing through the third set as Cecchinato looked out of sorts.
The beginning of the fourth set, which Cecchinato started 15-0 down after receiving a penalty for “unsportsmanlike conduct”, confirmed that impression and the Sicilian quickly trailed 5-2.
But Cecchinato had not given up, yet, and he broke back for 5-4 to force a memorable tiebreak.
There were set points, and match points, as the Court Suzanne Lenglen crowd enjoyed some pop-corn tennis.
Cecchinato opened up a 6-5 lead for his first match point. He hit a superb forehand down the line but Djokovic stretched himself for a lunging backhand volley that gave him a crosscourt winner, and a chance to fight a few other points.
The Serbian reached for a drop shot to get a set point, this time. There were two more set points at 8-7 and 9-8, both coolly saved by Cecchinato, who never panicked in spite of his lack of Grand Slam experience.
Inexperienced, maybe, but certainly not a newbie on clay. Cecchinato slid perfectly and had Djokovic guessing about the direction his balls would take, waiting until the last fraction of second to decide on his angles.
A jaw-dropping forehand wrong-footed the Serbian and Cecchinato had a second match point, saved by Djokovic on serve. It was 10-10, and it was not over yet.
Djokovic saved a third match point, but he served and volleyed on the fourth and Cecchinato’s backhand return flew past him and bounced within the limits of the court.
Cecchinato fell on his back and cried before regaining his chair with his red eyes full of tears.
Reporting by Julien Pretot; editing by Toby Davis, Larry King