Fognini aiming to spoil Nadal's run in Barcelona—again

by: Nina Pantic | April 21, 2016

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The Italian beat the Spaniard three times—including a straight-sets win in Barcelona. (AP)

BARCELONA, Spain—With a 6-3, 6-2 win over Viktor Troicki on Thursday, Fabio Fognini has set up a quarterfinal showdown against top-seeded Rafael Nadal.

Nadal may be fresh off his ninth Monte Carlo title, but Fognini beat Nadal an incredible three times last year, including a win in the third round of this tournament.  

Fognini shocked Nadal in Rio de Janeiro last February to score his first-ever win over the Spaniard. He also sent him packing in the third round of the U.S. Open. Still, Nadal recorded two wins over Fognini in 2015, one in Beijing and one in the Hamburg final, where they got into a heated fight during a changeover.

Nadal leads the overall head to head 6-3, but it’s clear that the flashy Italian’s game gives him fits.

“He’s playing great for a couple of years already,” Nadal said. “He has all the shots, very good forehand, very good backhand. He’s so quick. He’s going to hit winners from [a] lot of places [on] the court … I need to be ready to compete at the highest level if I want to have my chances. I’m going to try.”

Fognini reaching the quarterfinals is a bright spot of his 2016 season, which has been slow and very painful. He was just 3-5 going into this week’s ATP 500 event, with just one win since reaching the quarterfinals in Auckland. An abdominal injury suffered in Rio de Janeiro in February forced him to rest for three weeks. He then rehabbed for three weeks, and has been off the tour for nearly two months.

“I feel great because between yesterday and today, I’ve improved my game a lot,” Fognini said. “I’m really happy to be, another time, [in the] quarterfinals here in Barcelona.”

The Italian’s first match back after his absence was a first-round loss to world No. 52 Paolo Lorenzi in Monte Carlo. On Wednesday, Fognini beat the always-dangerous Mikhail Youzhny, 3-6, 6-0, 6-1.

The world No. 31 errs on the volatile side, and he’s unpredictable at best. On Thursday against Troicki, he managed to hold it together from the onset. With a lot of patience and a lot of poise, he took the first set 6-3 from the Serb.  

World No. 24 Troicki was the higher seed, and he’s known for his own theatrics, be it arguments with umpires or hijinks over the net. Though he was once famous for a missed drug test that banned him for a year, forcing him to start over, he has fought his way back into the Top 30 and has stayed near there. The Serb’s 2016 season has been the opposite of Fognini’s, with a final showing in Sofia as well as a title in Sydney.

Still, the second set began with Troicki handing the early break to Fognini in catastrophic fashion. He lost five straight points after being up 40-0. A little drama came in the second game after Fognini argued with the umpire for well over a minute about a line call. Instead of losing focus, Fognini held for a 2-0 lead and carried the momentum throughout the match. He failed to break at 5-1, but closed out the match in the ensuing service game and took the set 6-2.

The court they played on is tucked right against the corner of the stadium where Nadal was finishing up his 6-2, 6-2 beatdown of Albert Montanes. During their changeovers, the noise of the fans walking up and down the stadium was nearly deafening, as the metal bleachers creaked and moaned with every step.

Over the past 11 years, Nadal has won both Monte Carlo and Barcelona back-to-back seven times (including five doubles in a row from 2005-09). Though an eighth double appears to be on track, the 28-year-old is expectedly not satisfied.

“I’ve been 100 percent satisfied with nothing,” Nadal said. “There’s always room to improve, always room to do it better. I’m playing well. I’m happy with the way I’m hitting the ball, but you can always do it better. My goal, always, is to be better every day.

“For the moment, after winning Monte Carlo, playing [in the] semifinals in Indian Wells and being here in the quarterfinals are three very positive results.”

Nadal is now on a seven-match winning streak as he continues the chase for his ninth Barcelona title. Fognini knows that he will have a more confident Nadal across the net from him than he did at this time last year.

“I need some miracle, maybe,” Fognini said. “He’s better than me at the moment. He has a lot of confidence because he won Monte Carlo. So when he’s confident, it’s always tough to play against him. Even when he’s not.” 

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