In a battle between a veteran champion and an unexpected challenger, 2016 champion and former world #1 Novak Djokovic takes on Italy’s Marco Cecchinato for a place in the French Open semifinals. For Djokovic, victory here would serve as further vindication that he is returning to his best form. For Cecchinato, meanwhile, it would be a stunning result for a man who arrived in Paris unheralded but has delivered the sort of stunning run that makes the Slams so special. But who will reach the semis?
Djokovic and Cecchinato have never met before competitively. In terms of experience, however, the advantage is heavily in Djokovic’s favour. The Serbian is one of the sport’s all time greats, and he has the records to prove it. Djokovic will be looking for his 245th Grand Slam match win against Cecchinato. The Italian, who had no Tour-level match wins in his career coming into this year, has just four Slam wins, all of which have come this week. But a tennis match is not played on paper.
Path to the quarterfinals
Djokovic, despite arriving in Paris seeded 20th, his lowest since the 2006 US Open, did have some momentum after a promising run to the semifinals in Rome. But he did not thrill in defeating either Dutra da Silva or Munar in the first and second rounds respectively although he did not lose a set. He was forced to play at something close to his best to get past an excellent Bautista Agut 6-4 6-7 7-6 6-2. He then delivered a performance perhaps best described as being as good as it needed to be to defeat Verdasco 6-3 6-4 6-2.
Cecchinato had shown some promising form ahead of the French Open, particularly in winning the Hungarian Open, his first Tour-level title. He began his run with an impressive comeback victory against Copil of Romania, fighting back from two sets down to win. He than defeated Argentina’s Trungelliti in straight sets, 6-1 7-6 6-1. Cecchinato followed that by stunning the 10th seed Carreno Busta in four sets, 2-6 7-6 6-3 6-1, before repeating the trick against eighth seed Goffin, 7-5 4-6 6-0 6-3.
How do they match up?
One of the reasons that Djokovic has been able to win a fair number of matches at his past two tournaments is that he has been moving well again. The Serbian’s footwork has been much improved and he is also once again defending superbly out of the corners. That seems, in part, to stem from his willingness and readiness to stay with opponents and ultimately outlast them. Djokovic has also been able to raise his game when he’s needed to, a promising sign indeed.
One suspects that Cecchinato may be more familiar with Djokovic’s game than vice versa. But the Palermo-born Cecchinato has commanded attention with some very impressive tennis so far this week. His one-handed backhand, one of only two in the quarterfinals, has been firing this tournament. He also showed excellent feel against Goffin, and was able to make the fatigued-looking Belgian run. He has also made more than 70% of his first serves in his last three matches and will be aware of the importance of another good serving day against Djokovic.
This has surely been the greatest run of Cecchinato’s career, and he deserves enormous credit for what he’s achieved during this European clay court season. But his run will go no further. It is hard to see him toppling Djokovic. Though the Serb did not sparkle against Dutra da Silva, Marterer or Verdasco, they hardly asked it of him. When Bautista Agut demanded it, Djokovic delivered. That does not bode well for Cecchinato. Djokovic in straight sets.