Paris - In his record 12th French Open quarter-final, Novak
Djokovic will face a man he knows well, even if the rest of the world does not.
What a tale Marco Cecchinato (it's pronounced
Cheh-key-NAH'-toe) can tell, though. He is a 25-year-old from Sicily who once
was handed a match-fixing suspension that later was thrown out on appeal. His
tour-level career record was 4-23 before this season. His Grand Slam record was
0-4 before last week.
Yet here he is, earning the right to face Djokovic for a
spot in the semi-finals at Roland Garros by eliminating the No 8-seeded David
Goffin 7-5, 4-6, 6-0, 6-3 on Sunday. How surprising is this run? Cecchinato's
ranking of No 72 is the lowest in a decade for a man in the final eight at the
Asked whether he could have envisioned, even as recently as
April, that he would get this far at a major tournament, Cecchinato answered
with one word, "No," before breaking into as wide a smile as can be.
"For me," he continued, "this is the best
moment of my life."
Cecchinato and Djokovic, who meet on Tuesday, have crossed
paths often in Monte Carlo. Djokovic, a 12-time major champion, lives there,
Cecchinato has worked on his game at an academy there.
"I have known of him for many years," Djokovic
said after his 6-3, 6-4, 6-2 victory over No 30 Fernando Verdasco. "I know
now his game and I practiced with him. I watched him play. For sure, he's
playing the tennis of his life."
Yes, Djokovic was thrilled to get back to a ninth
consecutive quarter-final in Paris after dealing with elbow trouble for more
than a year and needing surgery in February. And in other men's action Sunday,
No 2 seed Alexander Zverev was relieved to win a third consecutive five-setter
- after trailing 2-1 in sets each time - to get to his first Grand Slam
quarterfinal, where he will face No 8 Dominic Thiem.
But one of these is not like the others.
In July 2016, Cecchinato was one of three Italian players
initially suspended by their national tennis federation for allegedly
influencing the outcome of matches. He was banned for 18 months and fined $45
000, accused of losing on purpose during a lower-tier Challenger event at
Morocco in 2015.
Cecchinato appealed, and the Italian Olympic Committee
announced in December 2016 that the sanctions were dropped entirely.
Asked Sunday whether he wanted to explain what happened,
Cecchinato replied in Italian: "Right now, I want to enjoy this moment.
That year was a tough time. I want to think about the present. Maybe we can
talk about it after the tournament. Now I want to enjoy the fantastic moment
that I am living. And I think that's good enough."
Fact is, his French Open probably should have ended in the
Cecchinato dropped the opening two sets that day against
someone named Marius Copil, a Romanian ranked 94th, and then was two points
from losing, right then and there. But Cecchinato came all the way back,
winning 10-8 in the fifth set.
And so the journey began.
Next came a straight-set win over 190th-ranked Marco
Trungelliti. The "lucky loser" made the 10-hour, 650-mile drive with
his 88-year-old grandmother, mother and younger brother from his home in
Barcelona to Paris once he realized there was a spot in the field available
because someone else withdrew.
That was followed by a four-set upset of 10th-seeded Pablo
Carreno Busta, and then the surprising win over Goffin.
"When he made me run, he was actually dictating the
rallies," said Goffin, whose right elbow was looked at by a trainer during
the match, "so it was hard for me to have the upper hand."
Cecchinato certainly appeared to be appreciating every
moment of his time on Court Suzanne Lenglen. He chatted with himself during
changeovers - "I like to talk," he said later - and dropping down
onto the red clay after one last backhand winner on match point.
And what a beautiful, one-handed backhand that is.
A reporter wanted to know whether he thinks that shot of his
is more like Gustavo Kuerten's or Stan Wawrinka's, a pair of past French Open
"Honestly," came the reply, "I want to be