Ailing Novak Djokovic upset by inspired Marco Cecchinato at French Open

Story highlights

Djokovic loses to Cecchinato in four sets

Serb received a medical timeout end of first set

Cecchinato to face Dominic Thiem

Madison Keys and Sloane Stephens set US Open final rematch

CNN  — 

No, the Russian didn’t end a demoralizing 14-year losing streak against the American. Rather, Sharapova didn’t have to face Williams after the new mom pulled out with a pectoral injury at the last minute.

The latest player to be hindered by injury in Paris, Djokovic received a medical timeout for what appeared to be a neck or shoulder problem at the end of the first set and fell 6-3 7-6 (7-3) 1-6 7-6 (13-11) to the 72nd-ranked Italian in nearly three and a half hours.

Cecchinato converted on his fourth match point in the gripping deciding tiebreak, his backhand return looping in down the line as the Serb served and volleyed. Djokovic couldn’t convert three set points in the tiebreak – on the last one at 9-8 he erred on a short forehand with his opponent stranded – and also failed to serve out the set at 5-3.

Still, he graciously crossed the net to exchange a hug with Cecchinato – they have practiced together in Monte Carlo – when the quarterfinal concluded on court Suzanne-Lenglen.

The 12-time grand slam winner entered the French Open with momentum after an elbow injury and loss of motivation led to a downturn: He stretched the “King of Clay” Rafael Nadal in their semifinal at the Italian Open last month.

So losing to Cecchinato was a blow.

“Any defeat is difficult in the grand slams, especially the one that came from months of buildup,” Djokovic said. “And 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.”

One to usually elaborate in his news conferences, Djokovic was in little mood to chat with reporters.

No details of injury

He acknowledged there was an injury but didn’t go into too much detail.

“A couple of things, but nothing major really,” he said.

But then Djokovic offered no guarantees of playing the grass-court swing.

“I don’t know if I’m going to play on grass,” he added.

Combining power, finesse and stellar movement, Cecchinato and his glorious one-handed backhand became the lowest-ranked men’s semifinalist at the French Open since Andrei Medvedev in 1999.

His “dream” continues, two years after being handed an 18-month ban for match fixing by Italy’s tennis federation. The ban was later overturned.

“Am I dreaming? Maybe I’m sleeping,” Cecchinato told the crowd. “I don’t understand (anything).”

Cecchinato is undeniably playing the finest tennis of career, a stretch that started when the 25-year-old won the Budapest title in April as a lucky loser.

Marco Cecchinato

And even before ousting one of tennis’ all-time greats Tuesday, he had an eventful tournament, rallying from two sets down in his opener against Marius Copil for a first grand slam win and then overcoming the lucky loser that captivated fans worldwide, Marco Trungelliti.

If that wasn’t enough, Cecchinato got the better of two of the top clay-court players on the tour, Pablo Carreno Busta and David Goffin.

Cecchinato next meets Dominic Thiem, who defeated second-seed Alexander Zverev 6-4 6-2 6-1. Zverev, 21, also received a medical timeout for a leg injury and was visibly hampered against the Austrian in his first grand slam quarterfinal. His upper left leg was heavily strapped.

Thiem, meanwhile, advanced to a third consecutive semifinal at the French Open and will be the heavy favorite against Cecchinato on Friday. You can bet he won’t be taking him lightly, though.

As for Cecchinato, he recalled beating Thiem in a Futures event in Italy on clay in 2013.

“I remember this match,” he said.

The stakes are higher Friday.

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On Monday, Serena Williams withdrew from her high-profile clash with Maria Sharapova due to a pectoral injury and Lesia Tsurenko quit after two games of her encounter with Garbine Muguruza because of a leg injury.

All American semifinal

Madison Keys will face pal and fellow American Sloane Stephens in the women’s semifinals in a rematch of the US Open final won by Stephens in September.

Keys edged the diminutive, fiery Yulia Putintseva 7-6 (7-5) 6-4 while Stephens breezed past Caroline Wozniacki’s conqueror, Daria Kasatkina, 6-3 6-1 in the Russian’s first grand slam quarterfinal.

Hard courts have been kind to American players, with clay often a struggle. When Keys and Stephens duel Thursday, it will mark the first all-American semifinal at the year’s second major since Williams beat Jennifer Capriati in 2002.

Yes, new mum Williams has stood the test of time.

Madison Keys advanced to a first French Open semifinal.

Only Djokovic will know whether his lack of matches – and not being in peak shape – in the last 12 months were contributing factors to his injury, which surfaced very early.

He shook his left arm and stretched his neck prior to calling for the trainer at 2-5. When the first set ended, the trainer returned for a full medical timeout.

Djokovic looked better but Cecchinato didn’t back down. After Djokovic reversed a break deficit and saved two break points at 3-3, Cecchinato saved three set points serving at 5-6. He bossed the rally on all three but his pick-up at 0-30 from a rocketed Djokovic forehand could have been the key point in the game.

He claimed the final four points of the second-set tiebreak, a spell that began when Djokovic sent a backhand drop shot into the net.

Winning two sets against one of the “Big Four” is one thing but winning three is a different proposition entirely.

Cecchinato temporarily blinked and a more aggressive Djokovic grabbed the third in 30 minutes. The fourth set began in similar fashion. Djokovic led 4-1 and held three break points for 5-1.

Couldn’t serve it out

Cecchinato hung on to start the turnaround, although Djokovic will be miffed for not serving the set out at 5-3, 30-0.

Into the tiebreak it went and Djokovic saved the first match point with a stunning, angled backhand volley that caught the line. The pro-Djokovic crowd was off its feet and even more so when he struck a reflex backhand volley on the next point when Cecchinato had ample time on his backhand.

They continued to go back and forth until Cecchinato’s sublime return.

“It’s tough to say the emotion in the tiebreak,” said Cecchinato. “I was very nervous because so many chances, so many match points.”

Cecchinato once again didn’t want to discuss his 2016 saga when it was brought up.

On Wednesday, the four remaining semifinalists in both draws will be determined. Nadal carries a 37-set winning streak at Roland Garros into his match against friend and 11th-seed Diego Schwartzman, while 2009 US Open champion Juan Martin del Potro plays the 2014 winner in New York, Marin Cilic.

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Simona Halep, the women’s No. 1, encounters twice grand slam winner Angelique Kerber, with Sharapova battling Muguruza in the contest of French Open winners.