DEALT WITH HEAVY BACKHAND

Paris  June 6  Cecchinato topples Djokovic with technical masterstroke to enter semis; Thiem unsettles weary Zverev

Novak Djokovic’s neck was bothering him. Then his right leg was.

The way he faltered at the most crucial of moments in the French Open quarterfinals Tuesday might have hurt him the most against an opponent who never won a Grand Slam match until last week and once was handed a match-fixing suspension later overturned on appeal.

At the site of his 12th and most recent major title, which came two years ago, Djokovic was stunned by 72nd-ranked Marco Cecchinato of Italy 6-3, 7-6 (4), 1-6, 7-6 (11) in a rollicking match filled with long points and plenty of drama.

“He held his nerves amazingly well in important moments,” acknowledged Djokovic, who said he isn’t certain whether he will play at Wimbledon.

Djokovic served for the fourth set at 5-3 but got broken. He then held three set points in the tiebreaker but couldn’t convert any.

“It’s a pity I could not capitalise on the chances I had,” Djokovic said.

Cecchinato came through on his fourth match point, looping in a backhand return winner as Djokovic tried to surprise him with a serve-and-volley attempt. Cecchinato, who dropped onto his back on the clay after winning, is the lowest-ranked man to get to the semifinals in Paris in 19 years – and about as unlikely as anyone to get this far at a big tournament.

Told in an on-court interview that he wasn’t dreaming, Cecchinato responded: “Are you sure?”

The 25-year-old from Sicily was suspended for 18 months and fined 40,000 euros (about $45,000) by his national federation in July 2016, accused of losing on purpose at a lower-tier Challenger event in Morocco a year earlier. Eventually, the Italian Olympic Committee announced that sanctions were dropped on a technicality.

Cecchinato has never won a tour-level match on a surface other than red clay; as it is, he entered this season with a career record of 4-23.

He arrived at Roland Garros with a 0-4 mark in the majors, and dropped the first two sets in the first round before coming all the way back to win 10-8 in the fifth. Since then, employing a smooth one-handed backhand, he has beaten players seeded No 8 (David Goffin) and No 10 (Pablo Carreno Busta), before adding former No 1 Djokovic to his list.

Cecchinato and Djokovic know each other well: They have practised together in Monte Carlo, where Cecchinato trains at a tennis academy and Djokovic has a home.

No one, though, could have seen this one coming. Perhaps the most remarkable part of this result was that Djokovic repeatedly failed to close out the fourth set and force a fifth. The Serb did appear to be gathering momentum, taking the third set and moving out to a lead in the fourth. He could not do enough to end Cecchinato’s marvelous run, though.

Thiem books s/f berth

Dominic Thiem reached his third successive French Open semi-final on Tuesday with a 6-4, 6-2, 6-1 demolition of a hobbled and exhausted Alexander Zverev.

Thiem, the Austrian seventh seed, goes on to face Italy’s world number 72 Marco Cecchinato for a place in Sunday’s final.

German second seed Zverev simply ran out of gas, paying a heavy price for needing three successive five-set matches to reach his first Grand Slam quarter-final.

His Roland Garros marathon also left him physically drained – he needed his left thigh strapped in the second set.

“He is one of the fittest guys on the tour so it was difficult for him on Tuesday,” said Thiem, the only man to have defeated 10-time French Open champion Rafael Nadal on clay this year.

“I hope we have many more matches at the Grand Slams but when we are 100 percent,” he added.