At World No 18, Fabio Fognini is certainly among the top tier of men’s tennis players currently active. Still, the Italian is considered a gulf away from his successes between 2013 and 2015, with consistency lacking in the past few seasons.
But Fognini, who came into the Monte Carlo Masters 2019 with only four match wins under his belt in the season so far, has been having quite the turnaround come the clay season. This year, the 31-year-old lost his first round matches in Cordoba, at the Argentina Open, the Rio Open and, most recently, in Marrakech at the Grand Prix Hassan II — to Jiri Vesely.
From losing repeatedly to players both lower-ranked and less-experienced than himself (and even being bagelled), this tournament and in particular during his match against Borna Coric, Fognini has looked like a fighter. Staring at defeat in his tournament opener in Monte Carlo against young talent Andrey Rublev, Fognini came back to take the next two sets with relative comfort.
Following a win against the already-struggling Alexander Zverev, Fognini once again repeated his feat. Going down 1-6 to a confident, hard-striking Coric, the Italian missed the memo — or perhaps, forgot the ‘one cardinal rule” of playing Coric: never take him to a decider. The Croat, till that point, was 8-0 in deciders this year. But for the once famously mercurial Fognini, it was a case of holding his nerve at crucial moments that won him the match this time around.
The numbers were stacked against the Italian coming into Monte Carlo this year. Despite the fact that he is a clay court specialist, Fognini’s wins have been streaky, patchy and dotted over the years, and certainly in the last couple of years, he has had more success on hard courts. Although fitness was never a major issue for the Italian, finding his groove and staying in it perhaps always has been.
Following his tournament opener, Fognini himself said he did not expect to move further in the tournament, saying he “…did not believe that I could reach the semi-final after being on the verge of defeat against Rublev in the first round.”
In his heyday, Fognini has beaten top-rated players — Andy Murray, Richard Gasquet and Tomas Berdych in their own best. He’s also defeated Rafael Nadal on clay — twice! — which is no mean feat for anyone whose name isn’t Novak Djokovic or Roger Federer. Despite his patchy form, however, spectators would do well not to forget that there are only seven players who have more than one clay court win over Nadal. Fognini is one of them. It feels, perhaps, as though over the years, since his suspension in 2017, the Italian has mellowed somewhat, but in all the right places.
The Coric-Fognini match was a battle of a young player who everyone has been watching as a clay court force, against a player who should indeed have been a clay court force in his own youth. It was not so much a battle of shots or talent — both players have that aplenty — or of errors. Coric did not play a particularly bad game, but the matter was of holding on, and being more in touch and in those aspects, Fognini was by far the superior player in the end, looked in better touch than he has recently, and moved easily across court, anticipated shots well, and despite putting in a great effort, did not look as though he was expending himself significantly.
For Fognini, who in 2019 particularly has struggled against younger players, his two wins against up-and-comers, or at least one-time ATP NextGen players, should give him the confidence that he can still return to far more consistent ways.
In so many ways, Fognini is like Nick Kyrgios, but before Nick Kyrgios hit it big. Constantly temperamental, and indeed, often immature on the court, Fognini still has an arsenal of shots that could beat almost any given opponent on his day. Perhaps, in Fognini, there is hope that Kyrgios too will even out, and find a medium where he can even plateau, rather than experience the serious ups and downs he is prone to.
The words most commonly associated with Fognini ostensibly end up being “mercurial”, “inconsistent” and “unpredictable.” Indeed, what always happens to Fognini is pushing through and fading out — something his wife, former Grand Slam winner Flavia Pennetta, attested to this year. It is not talent that has let Fognini down so much as mental fortitude, something that appears to have changed in a big way of late.
Nadal leads the pair’s head-to-head significantly, with 11 wins to Fognini’s three, and six wins to two on clay. But Fognini has one key psychological advantage: the fact that he has been able to beat Nadal on a surface where the Spaniard is, indeed, unparalleled in the history of the game. Two of Fognini’s clay court losses, too — at the Rome Masters last year, and in Madrid the year before, saw him force Nadal to dig deep for wins.
During Friday’s match, a commentator stated that Fognini may have won even more tournaments than he has if his mind were actually in the game more; but it is perhaps exactly that that has given us a new and improved Fognini, one whose focus has been tempered and still, somehow, honed off the court and on it. It is possible that becoming a parent — something Fognini speaks proudly of — has been the factor most responsible in his mellowing, in helping him find what was missing temperamentally.
This time around, Fognini, who is en route to hitting the top 15 this week, has something of a comeback to mount, and something to prove — if to nobody else, himself. His highest ever ranking of World No 13 was five years ago. If he is able to find his desire and his mojo yet again, it could very well lead to a full return for the Italian, who has been impressive on the doubles circuit all this while but been loath to replicate that success in the singles.
Is it likely that Nadal will be beaten on clay in today’s semi-final? Perhaps not. But there is certainly someone on the other end of the net who can give him a challenge. In times and challenges such as those of facing Nadal on clay, it may be Fognini’s temperament, usually his undoing, that could be his most powerful weapon against what looks like an unassailable target.
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Updated Date: Apr 20, 2019 15:44:23 IST