“Storytelling is really important in sport.”
This was a remark from Roger Federer about his shoes at the Australian Open this year, but it is also a reflection of many seeing sport as a story. Like a best-selling novel or a blockbuster film, except it is real. To quote another tennis legend, Venus Williams, “There is no do-over, there’s no retake, there is no voice-over. It is triumph and disaster witnessed in real-time.”
At this year’s French Open, there were many blockbuster moments – from the very cinematic return of the Black Panther catsuit worn by Serena Williams to the eight-hour road trip of the ninth-in-line lucky loser Marco Trungelliti.
But on Tuesday, there was a story told in the span of one match that will go down as an all-time classic in the Grand Slam Hall of Fame: The story of how world No 72 Marco Cecchinato triumphed over Novak Djokovic in an epic battle and his nail-biting 6-3, 7-6 (7/4), 1-6, 7-6 (13/11) quarter-final win that was unexpected, spectacular, gritty.
And like every great story, the match had the key elements – characters, setting, plot, conflict and theme – just right. Here’s how the epic went down.
Novak Djokovic: A 12-time Grand Slam champion and former world No 1 who was playing on a 20th seeding – his lowest in over a decade.
Marco Cecchinato (pronounced Check-in-aah-toe): A 25-year-old who had never won a match at a Grand Slam before this French Open. The Italian was suspended two years ago for his alleged involvement in a match-fixing scandal but was later cleared of any wrongdoing. He is now the lowest-ranked man in the semi-finals in Paris since 100th-ranked Andrei Medvedev in 1999, and the first Italian man to make a Grand Slam semi-final since Corrado Barazzutti in 1978. Incidentally, he is also the one who beat Trungelliti.
The quarter-final at Roland Garros, a hurdle Djokovic had crossed 10 times before but fell last year to further his misery. The Serb was aiming for his first Major semi-final since the 2016 US Open; the Italian was coming off successive giant-killing wins over No 10 seed Pablo Carreno Busta and No 8 seed David Goffin. One a fallen veteran struggling to beat all odds and bounce back to the top, one a rookie who had never seen this height before.
Set 1: Cecchinato got the early break to start the match and took a one-set lead with a mix of aggressive play from the baseline and smart returns at the net. Meanwhile, Djokovic took too much time between points and got annoyed at the umpire.
Conflict: Djokovic called for a Medical Time Out – his first of two – to treat his neck and shoulder. He looked beaten as he received on-court treatment. This seemed to be foreshadowing.
Set 2: This was the highest point of the story – a set of such sensational tennis of the highest quality that lasted over an hour and yet felt short. The set of the French Open perhaps… till the fourth one ended.
Djokovic went a break down at 0-2 and seemed to be slipping, till he activated a hidden gear to hold and then got triple break point to put the match back on serve. 2-2. 3-3. 5-5.
Cecchinato wowed the audience with his flair and stunning array of shots – the deceptive drops had his opponent flummoxed, the wily winners might have hurt the Serb’s injured neck further. It was like watching special effects as Djokovic missed yet another drop at the net.
But the Serb had a secret weapon of his own – his tenacity. He survived two break points and a 30-shot rally to gain three set points with Cecchinato serving at 5-6.
But the plot thickened. The set was defined by the fine margins of Cecchinato painting the lines and Djokovic finding the gaps. It went into a tie-breaker.
Clever tennis, a superb winner and uncharacteristic errors from Djokovic gave the Italian a two-set lead. The commentators called it the best set of tennis they had seen.
Conflict: Both are given code violations for receiving on-court coaching.
Djokovic had come back from two sets down only once at Roland Garros before, back in 2012.
Set 3: In a Freaky Friday moment, the roles were almost reversed. Cecchinato was missing the shots he was earlier effortlessly placing; Djokovic was responding to the shots he had earlier failed to read. After three back-to-back breaks, an uber-agressive Djokovic broke the Italian’s rhythm and spirit to claim the set with a breadstick in just under half an hour.
Had the toil of the earlier hour-long set taken its toll on the underdog unused to five-setters?
Conflict: Djokovic needed another MTO, this time for his legs. Cecchinato got a second warning and a point penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct. Potboiler.
Set 4: When Djokovic actually responded to a disguised drop shot from Cecchinato and turned it into a winner, the ones who were watching the match sensed a familiar ending. The beast was back.
Djokovic broke early and led the set 5-2, well on course for a decider and a potential rematch with Dominic Thiem.
But in an off-camera moment, Cecchinato recalibrated his settings and, from then on, it all changed. From a regular five-setter this became a unpredictable classic. The Italian won three straight games to level it at 5-5 and was suddenly two games away from a first Major semi-final. But Djokovic held on to force another tie-break, following a sequence of a shots that should be recorded and played every time anyone needs a reminder on why they love tennis.
Cecchinato took a decisive 3-0 lead before Djokovic leveled it 3-3, after the Italian artist missed his lines twice.
From 4-4 to 11-11. A 25-shot rally. A spectacular shank that goes into orbit (and took Djokovic’s sanity with it) to lose set point, a superb forehand winner to save match point. Three set points atrociously squandered, three match points astoundingly saved by Djokovic.
But the brave Italian had stretched the Serb across all sides and he had just enough in his tank to capitalise on more untimely errors. When Djokovic actually made way for what turned out to be a winner, Cecchinato was flat on the red dirt with tears in his eyes. The Serb walked across the net to his conqueror instead of waiting for him and gave him a hug – a photo finish to a battle of wills as much as skills.
And thus ended a classic real-time story with the victor and the vanquished shaking hands. No underdogs here and certainly no losers. A veteran whose struggles have intensified, a youngster who is moving deeper into uncharted territory. Neither may live happily ever after but both left the field knowing that this was not the end. Sport is an ongoing story.