Monte Carlo: Fognini d. Gasquet

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Are we about to enter the Fabio Fognini era in pro tennis? It may be premature to make that call, and let’s not forget that the Italian is 25 years old and has yet to win a title on tour. But so what? Fognini has more charisma, with his leading man looks and languid, confident manner, than Tomas Berdych or Marin Cilic to the 12th power. He’s had that for a long time. Now, though, it also seems like he has a game to go with it.

That was amply demonstrated in his quarterfinal clash with Richard Gasquet today. Gasquet rolled into the stadium with a 2-0 head-to-head lead, Fognini having won all of four games in the four sets comprising that record. Today, though, Fognini turned things around convincingly, as he made the ordinarily cavalier Gasquet look like an uptight, tentative, prematurely gray man in the course of an impressive and entertaining 7-6 (0), 6-2 win.

These two men have always had an overload of flair, although it does seem that the newfound grit and consistency of Gasquet have left their marks on the spectacular, almost bombastic shotmaker. By contrast, until recently Fognini was something like an exotic sideshow, and not just because of that dark lock falling just-so over his headband, the swashbuckling visage, or the mole on his cheek.

Emotional and volatile, Fognini always had one of those creative, slow-motion games based on precise counter-punching and changes of pace. But a combination of emotional volatility and lack of confidence and/or experience held him back. It seems no longer true, as he’s in a Masters 1000 semi for the first time in his life, and he’s guaranteed a place in the Top 30 before this week is out (his career-high ranking is one tick below his current ranking of No. 32).

Both of these men can make remarkable shots, although Gasquet is more of a ball punisher while Fognini is a ball whisperer. It’s an interesting combination, with more layers of complexity than your typical attacker-versus-defender or grinder-versus-shotmaker tussle. Perhaps that explains why the first set was so wacky. It started with three straight breaks of serve. A Fognini hold for 3-1 stabilized things, but only momentarily—Gasquet broke back to level it at 3-all in the sixth game.

By then, the pattern was obvious. Fognini was willing to let Gasquet hit himself out in rallies, but always with an appealing—and deadly—willingness to pull the trigger whenever the seventh-seeded Frenchman gave him the opportunity.

Fognini also made excellent use of the drop shot, and his work around the net—of which he has no fear—was as delightful as it was effective. In the eighth game, at 3-4, 30-all, Fognini had to leap out of the way of a passing shot heading right for his mid-section, but fended it off with a sweet touch volley and then forced a service return error to secure the critical hold.

This match contained too many creative shots to chronicle, but it ought to be enough to say that Fognini has terrific anticipation and a Miloslav Mecir or Marcelo Rios-like tendency to appear almost lazy on court, combined with a terrific opportunistic instinct. And that adds up to must-watch tennis.

That was never more apparent than in the first-set tiebreaker, which was swept by Fognini, 7-0. The last shot of the set was the 10th straight point won by Fognini, and it seemed to shatter Gasquet’s confidence for good.

The first three games of the second set flew by in eight minutes, mostly because of good hold work by both men. The next two slipped away almost as quickly. The big break developed with Gasquet serving at 3-4. Drop shot and drop volley winners from love-15 gave Fognini triple break point. But an unreturnable Gasquet backhand and Fognini’s worst shot of the match—a cross-court backhand pass pulled wide, with Gasquet frozen at the net—erased the first two.

But with one more break chance, Fognini converted it with a sharply angled backhand service return that a hard-charging Gasquet couldn’t handle with a backhand volley. Fognini consolidated the break with a confident game for 5-2, and broke again to win it—after which his smile lit up the entire stadium. Welcome to the the Fabulous Fognini era.

Stat of the match: Fognini won 14 of his 15 net approaches, and most of that was accomplished with brilliant racquet work as part of an all-court strategy and willingness to press forward.

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