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 capitalize on the chances I had," Djokovic said.
Cecchinato (it's pronounced cheh-key-NAH'-toe) 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.
Dominic Thiem made it to a third straight French Open semi-final after swatting aside second-seeded Alexander Zverev 6-4, 6-2, 6-1. The seventh-seeded Thiem is in sight of a first final at Roland Garros. In his way are 12-time Grand Slam champion Novak Djokovic or unseeded Italian Marco Cecchinato. Their quarterfinal on Court Suzanne Lenglen was later Tuesday.
There was no stirring comeback this time for Zverev on Court Philippe Chatrier.
Heading into the match, the German had won three consecutive five-setters — trailing 2-1 in sets in each — but the rousing effort caught up to him against Thiem.
Just 10 minutes in, Zverev clutched at his left hamstring. He grabbed it again midway through the second set, after giving chase to one of several drop shots Thiem used to force Zverev to run a lot.
After falling behind 4-1 in that set an hour into the match, Zverev called for a trainer, who applied a thick bandage to his upper left leg.
Soon enough, Zverev lost the second set, too, and it proved to be too much of a deficit to overcome. He trailed 4-0 in the third set before getting a game.
Over on Lenglen, meanwhile, Madison Keys reached her first French Open semifinal by defeating unseeded Yulia Putintseva 7-6 (5), 6-4.
Although not known as a clay-court specialist, the 13th-seeded Keys has not lost a set at Roland Garros.
"Today is a perfect example of what I have been trying to do, and I think it showed today," Keys said. "Because there were times when I had to go back and hit a higher ball, where maybe before I would have tried to hit a line-drive winner."
While Putintseva regularly lost her composure, Keys stayed calm throughout and the big-hitting American secured victory on her first match point with a powerful serve which clipped Putintseva's racket and flew into the crowd.
Her box, including three-time major winner Lindsay Davenport, rose to acclaim Keys, who lost last year's U.S. Open final to friend and countrywoman Sloane Stephens.
They will meet again in the semifinals after the 10th-seeded Stephens easily beat 14th-seeded Daria Kasatkina 6-3, 6-1 on Court Philippe Chatrier.
She clinched the victory on her first match point with a forehand winner to reach the last four at Roland Garros for the first time.
The 98th-ranked Putintseva was trying to become the first player from Kazakhstan to advance to a Grand Slam semifinal anywhere.
She had her chances against Keys, troubling her with deft drop shots and spinning, looping forehands, but could not hold her nerve.
After losing the first-set tiebreaker, she started ranting at her box and struck the ground with her racket in frustration.
Known for her short fuse, she lived up to it, regularly spinning around to glare at her box with looks of incomprehension and hand-flapping gestures; or at other times mumbling to herself in frustration.
In the second game of the second set, she was convinced an incorrect call went in favor of Keys and asked the chair umpire to come down and check it.
"My God," Putintseva said as she walked away. "I can't believe ... unbelievable."
She spoke ironically about it after the match.
"He (the umpire) decided that the mark from the tennis ball should be, like, from basketball or something," Putintseva said. "So I don't know where he was completing and what he was completing, because I think if we watch on the Hawk-Eye, the ball is totally out."
Djokovic faced an unfamiliar opponent in 72nd-ranked Cecchinato, who was cleared of a match-fixing charge on a technicality in 2016 — the year Djokovic won the last of his 12 majors at Roland Garros.