Friday 20 September 2019

Djokovic goes into meltdown after shock defeat in epic

Novak Djokovic reacts after missing a shot against Marco Cecchinato during his French Open quarter-final defeat. Photo: AFP/Getty
Novak Djokovic reacts after missing a shot against Marco Cecchinato during his French Open quarter-final defeat. Photo: AFP/Getty

Simon Briggs

Novak Djokovic has had his frustrations at Roland Garros before, notably when losing the 2015 final to Stan Wawrinka, but never has he stalked away from a defeat in the sort of towering rage that descended upon him yesterday.

Having just gone out to the unheralded Marco Cecchinato - an Italian ranked No 72 in the world - Djokovic marched straight into the media centre, sat down in one of the smaller interview rooms, and would not be shifted, even though there was no microphone for him to speak into and no stenographer present to take down his words.

When the questioning started, he was full of praise for Cecchinato, who had never won a single grand slam match until last week.

But he was also unable to take any satisfaction from his own performance in what was unquestionably the match of this tournament to date.

Asked if the quality of his own play confirmed the theory that the real Djokovic is back, he snapped: "I am back in the locker room. That's where I'm back."

Seconds later, he blurted: "I don't know if I'm going to play on grass," before bolting for the door after a four-and-a-half-minute press conference.

It was an emotional meltdown, but one that revealed just how badly Djokovic had wanted to reach his first grand slam semi-final in almost two years.

He cannot have expected Cecchinato to produce tennis of the gold standard that we witnessed on Court Suzanne Lenglen.

The onslaught started from the first game, which saw Cecchinato deliver a delicate forehand drop-shot on one point, and then - from an almost identical position - lash a ferocious winner up the line on the next.


At 5-2 down in that first set, Djokovic had his neck and shoulder manipulated by the trainer - the first of two medical time-outs that he would call. The second was on his right shin, at the end of the third set.

At the same moment, Cecchinato left the court to get a new pair of shoes from the locker-room, and was handed a point penalty, which he spent several minutes contesting.

Both men had already incurred code violations for coaching. There was always something going on. The whole circus boiled up to a climax in the fourth set. Djokovic led 5-2 but was broken as he served to take the match into a decider.

A tie-break ensued, lasting 22 minutes, that must rank among the finest ever played, both for suspense and for the superb quality of both men's play.

Djokovic saved three match points, the first with an extraordinary angled volley onto the sideline, which he followed by pointing to his ear and making whipping-up gestures to the crowd.

Cecchinato saved three set points, showing the heart to go with his spectacular strokeplay.

Then came the clincher. Trailing 11-12, Djokovic served and volleyed, almost for the first time in the match.

Cecchinato looped a backhand return up the line, and as the ball went past, Djokovic played no stroke.

It was a leave from the Mike Gatting school, as the ball dropped neatly into the corner and Cecchinato dropped onto his back in celebration.

"On the return, when I saw (the ball) on the line, it was the best moment of my life," he said later, with a broad grin.

There is, unfortunately, a shadow behind the story of Cecchinato - a 25-year-old who has just become the first Italian male to reach a grand slam semi-final since 1978.

In 2016, he was convicted of match-fixing by Italian prosecutors, although the decision was later overturned when irregularities were found in the way evidence had been gathered. He has always denied any wrongdoing.

Cecchinato has been asked about the case after each of his last two matches, but declined to address it.

"You ask me again," he said after completing his 6-3, 7-6, 1-6, 7-6 victory in 3 hours 26 minutes. "Also last day you ask me, and I told you I don't want to speak for that.

"I want to think for this moment in my life. And so next time, no, please. Thank you."

French Open, live, ITV4 / eir Sport 1 / Eurosport 1, from 12.30

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