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Novak Djokovic upset at French Open; all-American women’s semifinal set

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PARIS (AP) — 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.

Cecchinato became the first man to go into a Grand Slam with no main-draw wins at any Slam and reach the semifinals since Dutch Cinderfella Martin Verkerk made the 2003 French Open final. He’s also the first Italian man to reach a Grand Slam singles semifinal in 40 years.

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.

Next up: No. 7 seed Dominic Thiem of Austria, who made it to his third consecutive French Open semifinal by beating No. 2 Alexander Zverev of Germany 6-4, 6-2, 6-1 earlier Tuesday.

In the women’s quarterfinals, No. 10 Sloane Stephens beat No. 14 Daria Kasatkina of Russia 6-3, 6-1, and No. 13 Madison Keys eliminated unseeded Yulia Putintseva of Kazakhstan 7-6 (5), 6-4. Stephens beat Keys in the U.S. Open final last September, and their rematch on Thursday will be the first all-American women’s semifinal at the French Open since Serena Williams defeated Jennifer Capriati in 2002.

Cecchinato and Djokovic know each other well: They have practiced 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.

Djokovic, who missed the last half of 2017 with right elbow trouble and had surgery in February, is clearly not at the height of his power. Indeed, his seeding of No. 20 was his lowest at any Grand Slam tournament in a dozen years.

Still, Djokovic 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.

NBC, NBCSports.com/live and NBC Sports app coverage of the French Open continues with the women’s semifinals Thursday at 11 a.m. across all time zones.

French Open Semifinals
Women
(1) Halep/(12) Kerber – (3) Muguruza/(28) Sharapova 
(13) Madison Keys – (10) Sloane Stephens

Men
(1) Nadal/(11) Schwartzman – (3) Cilic/(5) Del Potro
Marco Cecchinato – (7) Dominic Thiem

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FRENCH OPEN: TV/Stream Schedule | Scores | Men’s Draw (PDF) | Women’s Draw

Gregorio Paltrinieri swims second-fastest 1500m freestyle in history

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Olympic champion Gregorio Paltrinieri swam the second-fastest 1500m freestyle in history, clocking 14:33.10 in his native Italy on Thursday.

Paltrinieri, 25, missed Chinese Sun Yang‘s world record from the 2012 Olympics by 2.08 seconds.

The Italian now owns the second- and third-fastest times in history, including his 14:34.10 from the 2016 European Championships, also held at the 2012 Olympic pool in London.

Paltrinieri is a versatile distance swimmer. At last year’s world championships, he finished sixth in the open-water 10km to qualify for the Olympics, then won the 800m free in the pool in a European record time and finished with 1500m bronze, just missing a third straight world title in that event.

German Florian Wellbrock won the 1500m in 14:36.54 at worlds, with Paltrinieri finishing 2.21 seconds back.

Sun, 28, was in February banned eight years stemming from destroying a drug-test sample with a hammer in September 2018. Sun, who focused more on the 200m and 400m frees in recent years, did not race the 1500m at the 2017 or 2019 Worlds.

Top-level swim meets in the U.S. are scheduled to resume in November with the Tyr Pro Series.

MORE: Michael Phelps qualifies for first Olympics at age 15

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Bianca Andreescu to miss U.S. Open

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Bianca Andreescu withdrew from the U.S. Open, citing “unforeseen challenges, including the Covid pandemic” compromising her ability to prepare to defend her Grand Slam title.

“I have taken this step in order to focus on my match fitness and ensure that I return ready to play at my highest level,” Andreescu, a 20-year-old Canadian, posted on social media. “The US Open victory last year has been the high point of my career thus far and I will miss not being there. However, I realize that the unforeseen challenges, including the Covid pandemic, have compromised my ability to prepare and compete to the degree necessary to play at my highest level.”

Andreescu’s absence means the U.S. Open, the first Grand Slam tournament since tennis resumed amid the coronavirus pandemic, will be without both 2019 male and female singles champions.

Rafael Nadal previously announced he would not defend his title, saying he would rather not travel given the global situation. Roger Federer is also out after knee surgery. Women’s No. 1 Ash Barty didn’t enter, either, citing travel concerns.

Last year, Andreescu made her U.S. Open title run as the 15th seed, sweeping Serena Williams in the final. Ranked 208th a year earlier, she became the first player born in the 2000s to win a Slam and the first teen Slam winner since Maria Sharapova at the 2006 U.S. Open.

Andreescu then missed the Australian Open in January due to rehab from a knee injury that forced her to retire during a match at the WTA Finals on Oct. 30. She also missed the French Open and Wimbledon in 2019 following a rotator cuff tear.

MORE: Serena Williams, reclusive amid pandemic, returns to tennis competition

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