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Monte Carlo Masters: Fabio Fognini breaks free from lackadaisical demeanour to emerge as massive threat to clay-courters

When Fabio Fognini walks around the court between points, it’s a little difficult to believe he is participating in a professional sporting contest. It might not even be correct to describe his movement as a ‘walk’; it is really more of a strut.

 Monte Carlo Masters: Fabio Fognini breaks free from lackadaisical demeanour to emerge as massive threat to clay-courters

Italy's Fabio Fognini celebrates with the trophy after winning the final against Serbia's Dusan Lajovic. Reuters

Head up in the air and shoulders thrown back, taking in his surroundings with an imperiously laidback eye, Fognini moves with a casualness and confidence that an ordinary person would have only while at home. In other words, Fognini walks on the court like he owns everything and everyone on it.

This week in Monte Carlo, he even played like it. Faced with a long line of quality opponents – Andrey Rublev, Alexander Zverev, Borna Coric, Rafael Nadal himself and finally Dusan Lajovic – Fognini produced some of the finest claycourt tennis seen in recent years to lift the biggest title of his career.

Many would say a performance like this was long overdue from the uber-talented Italian.

We’ve known about his extraordinary shot-making skills for a while now. That effortless power off the forehand, that bullet-like backhand with virtually no movement of the feet, those crazy good drop shots – Fognini has always been as much of a human highlights reel as the likes of Nick Kyrgios and Gael Monfils. But not unlike Kyrgios and Monfils, Fognini’s mind and focus have been a persistent problem; you never really know which Fognini is going to show up, or when he will get bored of a rally and throw in a nothing shot.

But Masters 1000 titles are not won with 'nothing shots', which explains why there were so few of them in Fognini’s Monte Carlo title run. Aside from the first half of his match against Rublev and the first set against Coric, Fognini was dialed in for the entire week, bringing all of his renowned power and touch to bear on the courts in the Principality. And the results were so spectacular that we ran out of words to describe them.

“Wonderful!” “Supreme!” “Delightful!” “Perfection!” the commentators cried at various points of the week, seemingly just as awed at Fognini’s outrageous plays as the wildly cheering spectators in Monte Carlo. If you weren’t watching, and were just listening to the commentary, you’d be forgiven for thinking they were calling a Roger Federer match. But then Fognini would hit another belief-defying shot, and they’d truly run out of adjectives. “Oh, Fabio Fognini!” they would exclaim like love-struck romantics, leaving you in no doubt who was turning them into such a slobbering mess.

This was the Good Fognini alright. We had become so accustomed to the Bad Fognini – the one tanking matches, smashing racquets, even calling umpires whores – that we’d forgotten what the other version looked like. So maybe we should all send Rublev a thank-you card for making this timely reminder possible.

In case you had forgotten, Rublev led by a set and 4-1 in his first round match against Fognini, and had five break points to go up 5-1. But he wasted them all, got broken back, and never really recovered. By giving Fognini a new lease of life, he may have given the Italian a sense of self-belief and destiny that he had never had before.

That feeling of destiny was in sharp focus again two matches later, as Fognini went down a set and 0-2 to Coric. This time he remained perfectly loose and relaxed, because he knew he could come back from an even more precarious position – as he had against Rublev. So he merely flipped a switch and unfurled a series of slices, lobs, drop shots and stand-and-deliver winners that took the racquet right out of Coric’s hands.

That he could also take the racquet out of Nadal’s hands was the story of the week and possibly the story of the claycourt season, until something else comes along that stuns the tennis world so resoundingly. I’m willing to bet we won’t see Nadal on the verge of being bagelled on clay again in the foreseeable future. The Spaniard’s abject surrender in the second set was the rarest of rare occasions that required the rarest of rare performances, and Fognini was just enough in the zone to deliver.

The final was more straightforward, even though Lajovic himself had played out of his mind to get to that stage. Fognini played steady and within himself for the most part, which in hindsight was the best way to defuse the electric energy of the Serb’s all-court attack. He still threw in his share of out-of-nowhere drop shots and tougher-than-they-needed-to-be volley winners, but his consistency was the single most important differentiating factor in securing the title.

The manner of his win in the final would have earned whole-hearted approval from the two women who were in his player box all week – his wife Flavia Pennetta, and clay-courter extraordinaire Francesca Schiavone. Pennetta and Schiavone, both Grand Slam champions, were known for putting their head down and working tirelessly to maximize their talents. Fognini’s lackadaisical demeanor often gives the impression that he has never put his head down for anything in his life, but that may be the biggest paradox of his career.

For all of Fognini’s instinctive shot-making, his most memorable wins have all involved keeping the ball in play for vast stretches of time. In his 2015 US Open win over Nadal he outhit and outsmarted the Spaniard, but he also outrallied him with his movement and consistency. His wins over Murray also showcased a similar willingness to be patient and hit the ball to the same spot repeatedly until an opening showed up for pulling the trigger. Fognini’s backhand in particular looks like a miracle shot when he’s in the mood for a fight; he hits it very flat and with seemingly very little margin, but his hand skills are so good that he can make it land in the court over and over again.

In that context, it may not have been necessary for Pennetta or Schiavone to be on hand for Fognini to learn to be more patient. But they do have a calming influence on him, Pennetta in particular, and Fognini spoke glowingly of her influence in his post-match press conference.

“I have everything in my life. I have a baby. I have a wife. They are with me all the time, so there’s nothing more to ask than that,” he said.

With the first Masters 1000 title of his career in the bag, and a couple more Masters tournaments followed by a Grand Slam coming up on his favorite surface, there could be more to ask. Fognini is 31 now, which is not exactly ‘old’ in today’s era; the likes of Stan Wawrinka and Kevin Anderson have shown that it is possible to play your best tennis in your 30s. Is Fognini ready to join their ranks and become a regular member of the top echelon?

It’s never safe to predict something like that with a mercurial personality like Fognini, and he echoed as much in his presser when he said he wasn’t thinking about Roland Garros at all. But his title run has proven that it is possible for Fognini to remain focused for an entire week against the world’s best players; that may be enough to earmark him as a perennial threat at any claycourt tournament in the immediate future. Perhaps more importantly, the product of that sustained focus is a reward in itself.

Over the past decade or so we’ve only ever seen Fognini act like he owns the court, with his kingly strut between points. But after this week in Monte Carlo we don’t have to die wondering; we now know what it looks like when he actually does own the court. And it is a glorious sight.

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Updated Date: Apr 22, 2019 12:26:28 IST