Novak Djokovic’s French Open hopes came to a stunning end Tuesday in the quarterfinals at the unlikely hands and the racquet of the world No. 72 Marco Cecchinato 6-3, 7-6(4), 1-6, 7-6(11).
It was the Serb’s worst lost by ranking ever at the French Open and his third to a player outside the Top 50 this year.
“I’m very, very happy,” said Cecchinato who had never beaten a Top 15 player before this week. “When I won the first match in Grand Slam, I feel good. And match by match, I feel now I can won also the next round… it’s a special moment for me.”
On a day that saw one-sided matches in the men’s and women’s draws, this match was expected to be the same. But Djokovic came out irritable and needed treatment early on for a neck or an upper right back issue.
With Djokovic in minor distress, the Italian hung on to an early break and took a first set.
Djokovic started to find his form and rhythm in the second but squandered set points then shockingly dropped the breaker to go down two sets to the Italian who lost in qualifiers at the French last year.
With his back to the wall, Djokovic raised his level and ran away with the third, then pulled ahead 4-1 in the fourth. It all but looked like it was going five and it was going Novak’s way. It wasn’t, though. Cecchinato got a break back then forced the tiebreaker. And what a breaker it was.
Cecchinato jumped out early but Djokovic swung the momentum back his way. The two went toe-to-toe. Djokovic saved the first match point after a long rally with a pinpoint volley. The tension mounted, set points, match points until finally, a backhand winner ended it at 13-11 on his fourth match point for Cecchinato.
The 25-year-old Italian had never before won a Grand Slam match (0-4), but now has consecutive victories over Pablo Carreno Busta, David Goffin and Djokovic and is in the French Open semifinals and will break the Top 30 ensuring a Wimbledon seeding.
“I think it will change my life. After Roland-Garros, I need some rest to realize the moment,” Cecchinato said.
“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.”
For Djokovic, it was a painful defeat after making some progress this clay season.
“I struggled from the beginning,” Djokovic said. “Just a pity that I couldn’t capitalize on the chances in the fourth set and some break points that I thought I had in there, but he came back and credit to him.
“Any defeat is difficult in the Grand Slams, especially one that came from months of build-up,” Djokovic said. “I thought I had a great chance to get at least a step further, but it wasn’t to be. That’s the way it is.
“Yes, it is heartbreaking, but not the most painful defeat of my career. It’s never been hard for me to congratulate and hug an opponent. He deserved to win. I know him well. He’s a great guy. On the other hand, when you walk off the court, of course, it’s a hard one to swallow.”
Djokovic also hinted he might not play on grass. “I don’t know if I’ll play on grass,” he said afterward.
In the earlier semifinal, Dominic Thiem rolled a weary Alexander Zverev 6-4, 6-2, 6-1. Zverev took some treatment early for a hamstring issue, but on a heavy, wet day, the German was no match for Thiem who looked right at home in his third straight French Open quarterfinal.
“It’s never easy if your opponent obviously is not 100 percent,” said Thiem. “But he’s one of the fittest guys on tour, and even for him it’s maybe a little bit too tough to play three five-setters in the first rounds of a Slam. So I expected, somehow, that he [would be] a little bit tired, but still I’m happy how I finished the game. I let him run. I was doing what I had to do, and so I’m satisfied.”
Zverev, who was playing in his first Slam quarterfinal, came in after three straight five set matches.
“I won three five-set matches in a row, got to my first quarterfinal,” said Zverev. All positive. [The] clay court season in general has been very positive. I lost three matches on the clay, all to great players. And I won two tournaments, made two Masters 1000 finals. So it’s all very positive.
“I think if I get healthy again, I’ll be ready to play good in the grass court season, as well… Grass is a surface that I like. Hopefully I can deal with what I have. And it’s going to be a quick [recovery].”
But Zverev will have to get his leg checked out.
“I’m going to take an MRI now after I’m done here,” said Zverev. “I’m going to go back home and definitely not do anything and see what it is… I thought about (pulling out). I definitely thought about it, but I didn’t want to pull out for the first time in my career in a Grand Slam quarterfinal.”
After two years losing the semifinal, Thiem will be the big favorite Friday to reach his first Grand Slam final against Cecchinato.
“I’m a better player in general, for sure,” Thiem said. “There was another year of work where I improved and developed my game. I think this year I’m physically and mentally fresher than I have been the past two years. I know how to handle a Grand Slam now, how to get that deep in such a tournament, and I think everything gets better with experience.”
Tomorrow, Rafael Nadal returns against Diego Schwartzman. Nadal leads 5-0 dropping just one set. Nadal has won his last 13 in Paris, plus 38 straight sets. Schwartzman is appearing in his first French Open quarterfinal.
In a battle of 6-foot-6 US Open champions, Marin Cilic meet Juan Martin del Potro. The Argentine leads 10-2 including a win at the French.
WEDNESDAY FRENCH OPEN SCHEDULE
Court Philippe-Chatrier – Play starts at 2pm
Garbine MUGURUZA (ESP)  vs Maria SHARAPOVA (RUS) 
Rafael NADAL (ESP)  vs Diego SCHWARTZMAN (ARG) 
Court Suzanne-Lenglen – Play starts at 2pm
Simona HALEP (ROU)  vs Angelique KERBER (GER) 
Marin CILIC (CRO)  vs Juan Martin DEL POTRO (ARG) 
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