PARIS – The story of unlikely French Open semifinalist Marco Cecchinato will go on.
So there’s plenty of time to dissect and digest that over the next few days.
But what of Novak Djokovic, who had every right to believe he, not an unseeded, No. 74-ranked opponent in only his second career main draw in Paris, would take the court Friday against Dominic Thiem?
Instead, the Serb is going home after a 6-3, 7-6 (4), 1-6, 7-6 (11) loss that ran the gamut of emotions.
For three hours and 26 minutes, the 31-year-old Serb showed all of what makes his fans worship him so, and some of what his detractors reproach him for.
It was compelling, can’t-turn-away drama and, at its best, it was brilliant tennis.
“Any defeat is difficult in the Grand Slams, especially the one that, you know, came from months of buildup. And I thought I had a great chance to get at least a step further, but wasn’t to be. That’s the way it is,” Djokovic said.
Opportunities lost to go five
The 2016 French Open champion was so close to putting the match into a fifth set. And, since Cecchinato had won the first two sets and was losing momentum by the moment, you liked his chances.
There were moments, especially in that fourth set, that he was channelling peak Djokovic so nearly, you could almost close your eyes and remember exactly how he did it back when he was nigh-on unbeatable.
His opponent forced him to get to that level, clearly unafraid to win and seemingly unabashed by the new, uncharted waters of his career.
But Djokovic is not there, not yet. Had he been even a little closer, he and Thiem would be squaring off on Friday.
He glimpsed his peak level in this match, numerous times. But he’s not yet at the point where he could sustain it long enough.
Djokovic was up 4-1 in that fourth set. Then he was up 5-2. And then he was up 5-3, 30-love when he tried to serve it out, only to be broken.
He was down a mini-break in the tiebreak. Then he was up one and playing as though he wasn’t going to make an unforced error the rest of the day. Then he was down a mini-break once more. He saved three match points. He had three set points of his own.
Crazy, high-wattage tennis
At 9-8, Djokovic’s third set point, the crowd thought he had it with a backhand down the line. But a great retrieval by Cecchinato had Djokovic set to hit another shot, a planned inside-out forehand with a little angle. Distracted momentarily by the crowd, Djokovic completely shanked it.
His reaction was intense. He bemoaned the crowd, begging them (s’il vous plait) to shush.
He wouldn’t get another chance.
At 10-10, his forehand hit the top of the net and bounced back on his wide. At 11-11, Djokovic went for an inside-out forehand, but just missed it.
On match point No. 4, lacking a little lucidity, Djokovic tried a surprise serve-volley. But the serve wasn’t good enough. Cecchinato’s backhand down the line dropped softly in the corner, and the Italian fell softly to the court.
Djokovic immediately crossed over to the other side of the net and extended his arms to a player he’s friendly with, with whom he has practiced numerous times at the Piatti Academy in Italy and at home in Monte Carlo.
“Well, it’s never been hard for me to congratulate and hug an opponent that just we shared a great moment on the court. And the one that won deserved to win the match, and that was Marco today,” he said afterwards.
“I know him well. He’s a great guy. He deserved. And that’s something everybody should do. On the other hand, when you walk off the court, of course, it’s a hard one to swallow.”
Despite having roared at the Court Suzanne-Lenglen crowd just minutes before, after they threw him off on that set point, Djokovic waved and patted his heart as he left.
He really did do all the right things on the court after the loss, as he always does. Even though his head must have been burning, and his heart a little battered.
In the first set, Djokovic had the trainer come out and try to stretch out the neck and shoulder area that has given him trouble occasionally over the last little while.
If that seemed to loosen up eventually, he had another slight issue with his right calf.
The issues may well have affected him some. Although there probably isn’t a player left in the tournament in its second week who doesn’t have a few aches and pains.
“Just couple of things, but nothing major, really. I don’t want to talk about that,” he said later in his rather unusual press conference.
They didn’t affect his fight. And his scrambling in some key moments of the fourth set indicated that if they affected him physically, it was going to be mind over body.
Quick change of plans
Djokovic had no interest in sitting in the big press conference room after that loss. And so he took it upon himself to head in shortly after the loss, but to a much smaller room. There was no transcription service set up, no television cameras at the read, and room for only a few media who hustled to get there from the main room.
It’s actually surprising Djokovic even knew where Room 2 was, actually.
There was some criticism of the Serb’s decision, to be sure.
But in this case, Djokovic’s revamping of the procedures, and the steam still coming out of his ears, spoke volumes about how he felt about the loss. Probably a lot more than another few hundreds words could have expressed.
It was out of character. And with all the occasions Djokovic has headed in and been more than gracious to his opponents after losses, answering whatever questions were asked, you’d have to give him a mulligan on this one.
He could have just paid the fine for skipping the press conference. He can certainly afford it. But he came.
“He played amazing and credit to him. Congrats for a great performance. He came out very well. I struggled from the beginning. Unfortunately, it took me time to get well, and struggled with a little injury, as well, at the beginning. And after, when I warmed up, it was better,” he said. “But, yeah, just a pity that I couldn’t capitalize on the chances in the 4-1 in the fourth set and some break points that I thought I had in there, but he came back and credit to him.”
Doubtful for grass?
In the state he was in, Djokovic brushed aside the usual French Open questions about the upcoming grass-court season. (These are the specialty of the British tennis press that makes the trip across the Channel every year).
He was asked when he planned to make his grass-court debut.
“I don’t know. I don’t know if I’m going to play on grass,” Djokovic replied.
It’s been a bit of wild card with Djokovic, who has won Wimbledon three times, but whose tuneup schedule has not been set in stone in recent years, the way rivals Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer’s plans have been.
Last year, he took a late wild card into Eastbourne, played the week before Wimbledon. That’s an unusual move for a top player. But he won it.
It was the first time he played a tuneup event on the grass since 2010.
He was asked again, and repeated the same answer. Asked to clarify, he couldn’t.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t know what I’m going to do. Just came from the court. Sorry, guys, I can’t give you that answer. I cannot give you any answer.”
Notwithstanding the fact that Djokovic might well have wanted to crush all of his game sticks after that defeat, it seems likely upon further review that Djokovic assumed the question was about playing grass warmup tournaments.
Given his sparse recent history in that regard, he gets that question every year in Paris.
One thing’s for sure, he’s not going to think about it for awhile.