Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Marco Cecchinato’s Run to the Roland Garros Semifinal

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This is a guest post by Peter Wetz.

When a 25 year old Italian tennis player named Marco Cecchinato defeated Marius Copil in the first round of this year’s edition of Roland Garros, some people may have noticed that it was one of the longer first round matches. With a duration of 3 hours and 41 minutes the match was the fifth longest of the 64 opening round matches. However, I am confident that no one suspected the winner of this encounter would go much farther in the draw. Little did we know.

After his unexpected four set win in the quarterfinal against a hard-fighting Novak Djokovic–bookmakers were giving him about an 11 percent chance of winning–many tweets emphasized the uniqueness of this achievement. Since it is difficult to provide more context in a tweet, I was interested in just how often something like this happened in the past. So I looked into the data and came up with more complete lists of the tweeted facts which are presented in the remainder of this post.

The first and obvious question is, when was the last time that a player ranked as high as Cecchinato reached a Grand Slam semifinal?

The following table shows players ranked outside of the top-70 that reached a Grand Slam semifinal. Rows denoting achievements at Roland Garros are bold.

Tourney Player               Rank    Round
<strong>RG 18    Marco Cecchinato     72    SF</strong>
W  08    Rainer Schuettler     94    SF
W  08    Marat Safin         75    SF
AO 04    Marat Safin         86    F
W  01    Goran Ivanisevic    125    W
W  00    Vladimir Voltchkov    237    SF
<strong>RG 99    Andrei Medvedev        100    F
</strong>AO 99    Nicolas Lapentti     91    SF
AO 98    Nicolas Escude         81    SF
W  97    Michael Stich         88    SF
<strong>RG 97    Filip Dewulf        122    SF
RG 92    Henri Leconte        200    SF</strong>
UO 91    Jimmy Connors        174    SF
AO 91    Patrick Mcenroe        114    SF

As the tweet points out the most recent comparable runs by Rainer Schuettler and Marat Safin happened after the players have reached top-10 rankings. Hence, the most recent really comparable run where the player has not reached his career high ranking at the time of the tournament, is by Vladimir Voltchkov, who reached the semifinal at Wimbledon 2000.*

Another unique thing about Cecchinato’s run is that until last week he did not win a single match at a Grand Slam event.

The following table shows players that won their first match at a Grand Slam event and went on to win more matches. To prevent showing an extremely short table, I relaxed the condition on how far the player should have gone when winning his first Grand Slam match to reaching the quarterfinal. The last column Attempts denotes the number of main draw appearances until his first main draw win.

Tourney   Player       Rank    Reached Attempts
<strong>RG 18      Marco Cecchinato   72       SF       6</strong>
AO 18     Tennys Sandgren    97       QF       3
<strong>RG 03      Martin Verkerk     46       F       3
</strong>W  00     Alexander Popp    114       QF       2
W  97      Nicolas Kiefer     98       QF       3
<strong>RG 97      Galo Blanco        111       QF       4
</strong>W  96      Alex Radulescu     91       QF       1
<strong>RG 95      Albert Costa         36       QF       4
RG 94     Hendrik Dreekmann  89       QF       2
</strong>AO 93      Brett Steven         71       QF       1

As the table shows, rarely has a player gotten past the quarterfinal after recording his debut win at a Grand Slam, with the notable exception of Martin Verkerk, who reached the final 15 years ago at his third attempt. Still–especially in the 1990s–there were a few players who won four consecutive matches. Not included in the table, but not less impressive, is the run by Mikael Pernfors. Interestingly, he had not won a single Grand Slam match, but he had built himself a ranking of 26, when he reached the final round of Roland Garros 1986, where he also won his first main draw match.

When looking at male Grand Slam competitors from Italy, not many names besides Fabio Fognini, Andreas Seppi, Simone Bolelli, and Paolo Lorenzi spring to mind. With 150 main draw appearances, the quartet shares a mere ten appearances in the round of 16 and one quarterfinal appearance (Fabio Fognini at Roland Garros 2011). Marco Cecchinato is the first Italian player in the semifinal of a Grand Slam in 40 years.

The following table shows all appearances of Italian players past the round of 16.

Tourney   Player            Reached
<strong>RG 18      Marco Cecchinato      SF</strong>
<strong>RG 11      Fabio Fognini        QF</strong>
W  98      Davide Sanguinetti     QF
<strong>RG 95      Renzo Furlan             QF</strong>
AO 91      Cristiano Caratti      QF
<strong>RG 80      Corrado Barazzutti     QF</strong>
W  79     Adriano Panatta    QF
<strong>RG 78      Corrado Barazzutti    SF</strong>
UO 77      Corrado Barazzutti    SF
<strong>RG 77      Adriano Panatta    QF
RG 76      Adriano Panatta    W
RG 75      Adriano Panatta    SF
RG 73      Paolo Bertolucci    QF
RG 73      Adriano Panatta    SF
RG 72      Adriano Panatta    QF</strong>

Despite the fact that male Italian players seem strongest on the dirt, since 1978 no one reached the semifinal of a Grand Slam. Even Fabio Fognini’s quarterfinal appearance at Roland Garros 2011 was the first in 13 years. Marco Cecchinato is one win away of being the first Italian Grand Slam finalist since 1976.

Marco Cecchinato was not seeded. If we look at Grand Slam semifinals comprised of unseeded players an interesting pattern appears.

Tourney Player              Reached
<strong>RG 18    Marco Cecchinato      SF</strong>
AO 18    Hyeon Chung        SF
AO 18    Kyle Edmund        SF
W  08    Rainer Schuettler    SF
W  08    Marat Safin        SF
<strong>RG 08    Gael Monfils        SF
</strong>AO 08    Jo Wilfried Tsonga    F
UO 06    Mikhail Youzhny        SF
W  06    Jonas Bjorkman        SF
AO 06    Marcos Baghdatis    F
UO 05    Robby Ginepri        SF
<strong>RG 05    Mariano Puerta        F
</strong>W  04    Mario Ancic        SF
<strong>RG 04    Gaston Gaudio        W
</strong>AO 04    Marat Safin        F
W  03    Mark Philippoussis    F
<strong>RG 03    Martin Verkerk        F
</strong>AO 03    Wayne Ferreira        SF
W  01    Goran Ivanisevic    W
UO 00    Todd Martin        SF
W  00    Vladimir Voltchkov    SF
<strong>RG 00    Franco Squillari    SF
</strong>

Since 2008 this is only the third time that an unseeded player reached the semifinal. All three occurrences happended this year. It appears that we can again get used to see new faces deep into the second week of a Grand Slam tournament.

Finally, let’s take a look at Grand Slam semifinals between players using a one-handed backhand. The decreasing popularity of the one-hander has already been discussed here and with this in mind it seems even more unique that Dominic Thiem–the player who Marco Cecchinato will face tomorrow in the semifinal–inititally played a two-hander, but then changed to a one-hander.

Tourney Player 1            Player 2
<strong>RG 18    Marco Cecchinato      Dominic Thiem</strong>
AO 17    Roger Federer        Stanislas Wawrinka
UO 15    Roger Federer        Stanislas Wawrinka
W  09    Roger Federer        Tommy Haas
W  07    Roger Federer        Richard Gasquet
AO 07    Fernando Gonzalez    Tommy Haas
UO 04    Roger Federer        Tim Henman
UO 02    Pete Sampras        Sjeng Schalken
<strong>RG 02    Albert Costa        Alex Corretja
</strong>W  99    Pete Sampras        Tim Henman
UO 98    Patrick Rafter        Pete Sampras
W  98    Pete Sampras        Tim Henman

If we ignore Roger Federer and Stanislas Wawrinka, two players who brought the one-handed backhand back into discussion, the last Grand Slam semifinal between two one-handers was played between Fernando Gonzalez and Tommy Haas at the Australian Open 2007. Before that, Pete Sampras was involved in four of six such encounters. Without Roger and Pete the world of one-handed Grand Slam semifinals would look really thin.

Whatever the result of the semifinal between Marco Cecchinato and Dominic Thiem will be, we know already that Marco achieved what only few players have done before him, especially in recent years. Whether he will be able to repeat this feat at Wimbledon, where he will be seeded despite having never won a match on a grass court, is arguable. Still, placing a bet on his own first round loss probably won’t be a good idea–at the very least, a lot more fans will be watching his opening match than ever before.

* A previous version of this article wrongly stated that the Wimbledon 2001 championship run by Goran Ivanisevic is more similar to Marco Cecchinato’s run. However, in 2001 Ivanisevic had already achieved his career high ranking, which is not the case for Cecchinato. Thanks for @rtwkr at Twitter for pointing this out.

Peter Wetz is a computer scientist interested in racket sports and data analytics based in Vienna, Austria.

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