The Rally: Takeaways from Djokovic's French Open QF loss to Cecchinato

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Novak Djokovic had plenty of opportunities to push Marco Cecchinato to a fifth set, but lost in a memorable, 13-11 tiebreaker. (AP)

PARIS—How’s this for a major surprise? Prior to this year’s French Open, 12-time Grand Slam champion Novak Djokovic had won 240 Grand Slam singles matches. His opponent, 72nd-ranked Marco Cecchinato, had won zero. Surely, Cecchinato’s 6-3, 7-6 (4), 1-6, 7-6 (11) win is a major upset—and also a barometer of where things stand with Djokovic. Two of our writers, Steve Tignor and Joel Drucker, were on-site for the match and immediately took time to give it a big picture appraisal. Here’s their written rally.

*****

Joel,

You never know when a Slam is going to catch fire, do you? The Novak Djokovic-Marco Cecchinato quarterfinal wouldn’t have been anyone’s choice as a likely classic. Despite featuring a former No. 1, the match was sent over to the second show court, Suzanne Lenglen, while the battle of the young guns, Alexander Zverev and Dominic Thiem, took center stage on Court Philippe Chatrier. But this match gave us the highest drama of the fortnight so far, and peaked with an all-time-great, 13-11 tiebreaker, and what will surely become a viral clip of Djokovic shushing the Parisian crowd, the same way his fellow legend, Roger Federer, once commanded them to “Shut up!” on the same court. Too late: Djokovic had already shanked an easy forehand on set point; it would be his best chance to push the match to a fifth.

This will also go down as an all-time upset, at least on paper. Cecchinato is an Italian who fits the journeyman label; at 25, he had never won a Grand Slam main-draw match before this event—though, to be fair, he did win a title in Budapest last month, so his game has been on an upswing. However you want to look at Cecchinato, I’d say this result is only a mild surprise. Djokovic, as we’ve seen all spring, hasn’t shown that he’s ready to sustain his old stratospheric levels for more than a match or two. While he looked good and sounded optimistic after beating Fernando Verdasco in straight sets on Monday, Cecchinato was just the type of dyed-in-the-wool dirt-baller who could force Djokovic to hit ball after ball, and work hard to close out point after point.

To me, the difference between the Djokovic of old and today’s version can be seen in how he played at the end of the second set. After losing the first, he had set points to level at one-set all. How many times over the years have we seen Djokovic, or Rafael Nadal, or Serena Williams, scratch and claw through a set like that, go on to win in what seems like routine fashion, and no one ever remembers the match. This time, though, Djokovic couldn’t close that set, and thus couldn’t head off the threat before it picked up too much steam. Those few key points are what once separated Djokovic from guys like Cecchinato.

What are your first thoughts on this one, Joel? What did you think of Djokovic’s game and attitude through it?


Cecchinato wins a 30-shot rally in the second set:


Steve,

If ever we wanted to clarify that tennis is a game of inches, it was this match and where things stand with Djokovic’s tennis. All year, at least until Rome, he floundered—and not merely by inches.

So now, here at Roland Garros, Djokovic sought to find his best tennis, in the toothpick-by-toothpick manner by which he’s won so many titles. Throughout the tournament, Djokovic’s best form was only present intermittently—but still, enough to get past some good opponents. A month ago could he have imagined he’d reach the quarters here, and his opponent would be a man with Cecchinato’s meager Slam resume? 

Given Cecchinato’s track record, who had any idea how he was going to play today? I’ll bet even Cecchinato had no clue, either. It was clear, though, that he was hardly intimidated by Djokovic, that the champion’s aura—that whole locker room intimidation factor—Djokovic wore for so long has largely faded. 

So Cecchinato scampered, took his cuts—and also knew what a lot of us have seen for a long time: Djokovic isn’t particularly comfortable in the transition area. Those precious inches surfaced when he shanked a few balls in the fourth-set tiebreaker. The precision that’s made him so effective just hasn’t been there for some time, and so, as has been the case for nearly two years now, Djokovic was bounced out of a Slam earlier than anticipated. 

Despite all that, I thought his game showed far less erosion than it had earlier in the year, that the elbow issue seems resolved and now it’s a matter of gaining the continued match play that builds confidence.

What’s your thought, Steve, on this match and its implications for Novak moving forward? 


Cecchinato eliminates Djokovic with a backhand winner down the line:


Joel,

“Locker-room aura” may sound like jock mysticism, but a few losses here, a few losses there—or, in Novak’s case by now, quite a few losses—and your opponents quickly forget you ever won 12 major titles. It’s a jungle in there.

After he beat Fernando Verdasco on Monday, someone asked Djokovic if he had ever seen Cecchinato play. He said he knew him well, and had practiced with him often in Monte Carlo. I thought that familiarity might help Djokovic, but it seems to have worked in Ceccinato’s favor. He was in a groove against Novak from the start, and completely comfortable. What you said about Djokovic missing his transition shots is true; when he needed to take over a rally in that tense closing tiebreaker, he hesitated, and often missed, on balls he wouldn’t have missed during his peak years. Should we chalk that up to form, or confidence? Some combination of both? I’d say most of us, thinking about Djokovic’s comeback at the start of this season, would have thought he’d have that old precision back by June.

As for the rest of his year, you have to start with the physical side. Djokovic had work done on his neck, shoulder, and leg during the match, and he said, “I don’t know if I’m going to play on grass.” (Though he also said that he “just came from the court,” so we’ll see if that was just a moment of frustration or not.) From the emotional side, the consensus in the interview room today was that he looked as down as he’s ever looked after a loss. When a reporter suggested that he’s “back,” Djokovic said, “I’m back in the locker room. That’s where I’m back.”

But I do think this will be a blow. As Djokovic said, he’d been building up to this Slam for months, and now, rather than making the semis or final and losing to a top player, he’ll leave with the memory of losing to someone he surely thought he would beat, and of squandering a chance to make a tremendous comeback. Now he’ll have the memory of that forehand shank at set point to mull over for the next three weeks.

As for us, we have Cecchinato to watch. His story began where another Marco’s, the lucky loser Marco Trungelitti, ended. Cecchinato beat Trungelitti in the second round, and hasn’t looked back since. He played some terrific tennis on Wednesday—solid from the ground, with a little touch and flair around the edges. And with his quick smile and quick arguing style, he certainly has personality. It will be interesting to see how he matches up against Dominic Thiem in the semis. Thiem will be pleased to see him rather than Djokovic, but he might be careful what he wishes for.

What did you think of Cecchinato, and of Novak’s post-match reactions, Joel? 


Tennis Channel's team at Roland Garros reacts to the result:


Steve,

Cecchinato is yet another of those Rocky Balboaesque stories we so love in tennis.  Still, despite his absence of Slam wins, he’s made his way into the Top 100 and today played quite boldly many times. You’re right that having practiced with Novak, he likely felt even less intimidated. 

Cecchinato’s game is the kind that can impress for one match—a low-grade mix of grinder and slasher. In some ways, the package was rather old school—rolling topspin forehands, driving one-handed backhands. He reminded me of a player from the late 1980s, Alberto Mancini. Over the course of this match with Djokovic, it was quite pleasing, right down to the down-the-line backhand return Cecchinato laced on match point to close it out.

Of course, these Cinderellas can rapidly turn into pumpkins. I have a hard time imagining that Cecchinato can sustain or even find that level of play against Thiem in the semis—especially given all the ways Thiem can make the ball dance and jump. 

As for Novak, it’s understandable how much anguish he feels. I suspect that in 48 hours, he’ll be able to bring the rational part of his mind to things and commence preparation for Wimbledon, assuming he’s reasonably healthy. But at this very moment, in the wake of having had several chances to take this into a fifth set, his tumult is justifiable. It would have been much easier to be blown away—certainly by a top player, but even by Cecchinato. But to have been so close to leveling the match is a bitter pill. That said, I’m still confident that in time—tough to say when—Djokovic will be back among the elite. 


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