Fabio Fognini's suspended two-Slam ban and fine: what it is—and isn't

by: Steve Tignor | October 11, 2017

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Fabio Fognini's suspended punishment offers plenty of carrot, but not enough stick. (AP)

When it comes to events that have been “a long time coming” in tennis, a two-Grand Slam ban for Fabio Fognini is at the top of the list.

On Wednesday, the sport’s Grand Slam Board threatened Fognini with that potential penalty, along with a $96,000 fine, for what it deemed the “major offense of aggravated behavior” and “conduct contrary to the integrity of the game” that he committed at the US Open six weeks ago.

This is the second time Fognini has been punished for using what has been politely described as “extremely derogatory and misogynistic language” toward chair umpire Louise Engzell during his first-round singles match in New York—the less-polite way to describe it is to say that he called her a whore. Later that week, Fognini was kicked out of the doubles draw at the Open and fined $24,000.

Yet this being tennis, where second, third, and fourth chances are the norm for bad behavior, Fognini can still avoid the two-major suspension, and see his fine cut in half, if he doesn’t commit any more major offenses during Grand Slam events over the next two seasons.

From the Grand Slam Board:

Does the penalty fit the crime? More precisely, does it fit the perpetrator? I understand the idea of using the carrot of a suspended sentence to try to force Fognini to change his ways. After a half-hearted initial apology, he has sounded more contrite. He won’t appeal his sentence, he says, and he told Sky Sports Italia, “The gravity of my gesture I understand, I know I did something heavy...there will not be a [next time].”

Still, the carrot that the Grand Slam Board held out should have come with more stick—such as making his two-Slam ban immediate, rather than contingent on future behavior. In the case of a “major offense,” after all, it was within officials’ power to fine Fognini $250,000 and permanently ban him from all majors.

Even that most severe of sentences wouldn’t have come as a surprise to longtime Fognini watchers. The 30-year-old is a lifetime recidivist when it comes to outrageousness and offensiveness. This is a player who, aside from his garden-variety cursing, gesturing, racquet smashing and ball slamming, was fined $29,500 at Wimbledon in 2014 for insulting a chair umpire and tour supervisor; called a Serbian player “gypsy s---t” a few months later in Hamburg; and threatened one of the game’s most respected umpires, Mo Lahyani, in Madrid, for making a call he didn’t agree with—“Come now, don’t be scared,” Fognini said as he motioned for Layhani to meet with him after the match.

Will Fognini suddenly rein himself in after letting it all hang out for much of his 13-year career? There’s also the question of tennis’s divided jurisdiction. If Fognini commits a “major offense” at a tournament run by the ATP (i.e., a non-Slam event), will it count against him with the Grand Slam Board?

Just as important, with women umpires now routinely working men’s matches, and with the memory of Ilie Nastase’s crude behavior at a Fed Cup tie this spring still fresh, the tours need to show zero tolerance for the type of gross sexism that Fognini exhibited at the Open. A suspended ban and a moveable fine fall short of that.

Like Nastase, Fognini is part of a long line of bad actors in tennis who have largely avoided facing serious, behavior-changing punishment. With Nasty, as with John McEnroe, their tempers were often excused as the regrettable but understandable flip sides of their artistic talents. For his part, Fognini has often been cast as a comical sideshow, the ringmaster of a ridiculous but harmless circus that adds flavor to the game. His words and actions at the Open should put an end to that too-kind characterization, both for Fognini and for any other player who believes that crude insults are a natural by-product of heated competition.

A ban has been a long time coming for Fognini. Let’s hope the possibility of one is finally enough to make him pack up his ugly circus and put an end to his tired act.

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