Some tennis champions are easy to love. The grace, gentlemanly behavior and enduring excellence of Roger Federer make him a rarity—a player admired even by his vanquished opponents. Half-bull, half-bullfighter, Rafa Nadal displays an on-court, testosterone-driven truculence that might be expected to limit affection for him. But his myriad supporters revere him for his relentless effort and refusal to quit. Although both men are among my favorites, I confess a secret vice. I’m a committed fan of Fabio Fognini, which is the same as admitting to sympathy for the devil.
Everything about Fognini appears calculated to prevent spectators from siding with him. His Mephistophelean mustache and goatee suggest he has seen and done things other men cannot imagine. As if to hammer home this impression, he used to endorse Oxygen brand clothing, and wore a scarf with a death’s head insignia. In one of his evolving incarnations Andre Agassi resembled a pirate. Not to be outdone, Fognini resembled Satan.
And his walk! What could possibly be more arrogantly provocative? At 5’10”, one of the little guys on the tour, he struts around like Nureyev striking poses. Between points he swans from deuce court to ad court and back again. At change-overs, he swanks around like a peacock, seldom deigning to glance at his opponent. To the list of competitors who get into the other guy’s head, Fognini occupies a category all his own. His every disdainful gesture seems dead set on psyching out the fellow on the far side of the net.
All this may make Fognini sound like an opera-bouffe villain, the sort who inevitably gets his comeuppance in the last act. But what redeems his posturing and preening is his transcendent talent. The Italian devil has got game as he has demonstrated over the years, taking down Nadal three times on clay, most recently in the semifinals at Monte Carlo, a Masters level event that he went on to win. More than merely a crafty dirtballer, he has also beaten Rafa on a hard surface at the 2015 US Open, fighting back from two sets down. (In fairness, this victory left him playing second fiddle in Italy and in his own household to his wife Flavia Pennetta, who won the singles title at the 2015 US Open.)
Hall of Fame Italian tennis writer Gianni Clerici commented about Fognini’s marriage to Pennetta that Fabio needed a nurse, preferably one with a background in psychology. The union appears to have helped steady him, as has the birth of their son Federico. While Fognini still shows a penchant for losing concentration and losing matches that he should win, the 2019 season has seen him rise to 12 in the rankings, with the prospect of his vaulting into the top ten for the first time in his career, depending on his performance at the French Open.
Yesterday in the round of 32, Fognini confronted the veteran Spaniard Roberto Bautista Agut who beat him two months ago in Miami. True, that was on a hard court, but RBA is also adept on red clay, and in demeanor, the Spaniard represents the Italian’s mirror opposite. Poker-faced, correct and in all respects straightforward, he’s the perfect foil for Fabio and early on in their match he appeared to have the answers to the Italian’s flashy baroque style.
RBA broke serve early in the first set, and would do the same in two subsequent sets. But Fognini responded with typical fregismo, the Italian I-could-care-less attitude that makes him so maddening to players who delude themselves that they have him on the ropes. Alternating the speed and spin of his groundstrokes, opening up the court with short angled shots, serving up timely aces and throwing in a fusillade of drop shots, he broke back and took the first set in a tiebreak and the second set 6-4. For all his apparent nonchalance, he is deceptively quick, and after long exchanges of half-speed strokes from the baseline, he’s capable of crushing winners down the line.
Yet Bautista Agut always remained within reach, chasing down balls, staying resolute on every point and managed to pull out the third set. Fognini shrugged that off, however, and in the fourth set, it was he who got an early break and never let RBA back into the match.
In the next round, Fognini faces Sasha Zverev, the angelic-looking German, the Next Gen ingénue who on paper figures to beat the Italian. But the contest will take place on clay, a surface where it’s always tough to beat the devil.
Michael Mewshaw is the author of 22 books, most recently The Lost Prince: A Search for Pat Conroy.