By the time he reached the Monte Carlo final on Sunday, Fabio Fognini, it seemed, had already done the hard parts.
The 31-year-old, who had entered 80 Masters 1000 events since 2006 without making the final of any of them, had started the week by rising from the near-dead against Andrey Rublev. He had handled Alexander Zverev in straight sets. He had healed himself of a mid-match injury against Borna Coric. He had nearly bageled Rafael Nadal. On clay. Shouldn’t that have been enough for the 31-year-old to earn his first Masters 1000 title? Surely 48th-ranked Dusan Lajovic wouldn’t be able to do anything to keep him from lifting the trophy now.
But this match presented its own difficulties. They were more subtle than the ones Fognini faced against Nadal, but they were real nonetheless. Now he was expected to win. Now he had shown the world what he could do; if he didn’t do it again, we’d probably go back to thinking of him as a talented troublemaker who would never win anything big. Plus, as Fognini himself said later, “A final, it’s always really hard to play.”
Because of all that, because now he had something to lose, Fognini was a little more tentative against Lajovic than he had been against Nadal. Instead of pulling the trigger as soon as he could, he rallied, he parried, he worked the ball around, he slid, he scrambled—he may have even pulled a hamstring mid-way through the second set. Lajovic, who possesses one of the game’s best-looking backhands, can hit winners from both sides, so there was simple strategy for Fognini to employ, the way there had been against Rafa. Lajovic also happens to work with Fognini’s old coach, José Perlas, so he had to believe the Serb would come prepared.
“I knew it was going to be tough,” Fognini said, “with lots of running.”
Despite all of these reasons why he could have lost, Fognini won anyway. He wasn’t incandescent, but he was something that can be even more difficult for him—he was steady and measured, in control of his tactics, his emotions, and the moment. At those times when he could have gone bananas, or could have choked, he didn’t.
Faced with a break point while serving for the first set, Fognini made the smart play by wrong-footing Lajovic; then, on set point, he put a backhand on the sideline for a winner. In the second set, Fognini gave back an early break, but he didn’t panic or throw even the semblance of a fit. Instead, he kept pressing, kept moving Lajovic back and forth across the baseline, kept throwing in well-struck drop shots and making well-timed forays to the net, and broke again. Three simple service holds later, he had his 6-3, 6-4 win and the biggest title of his career.
Asked how it felt, Fognini said he had no way to express it. “Incredible achievement,” he finally stammered. Basically, all he could think about was having a few days off.
When Fognini’s celebration ends and he returns to the court, what can we expect from him? Are the profane histrionics, and the fines that come with them, a thing of the past? Is it going to be all grit and genius from here on out? That’s doubtful. Something, somewhere will set him off, and the old, raging Fabio will return.
Still, judging by the results of some other recent ATP late bloomers, this shouldn’t be the last big result we see from the Italian. Two years ago, 31-year-old Kevin Anderson reached his first major final at the US Open, then did it again at Wimbledon. Last spring, 32-year-old John Isner won his first Masters event, in Miami, then reached his first Slam semi a few months later, also at Wimbledon. Fognini’s best chances will come right away, on his favorite surface, clay.
Watching Fognini slide across the dirt and paint his casual masterpieces in Monte Carlo is enough to make any fan of the clay game, or the game in general, wish for more of this version of Fabio. Like Nick Kyrgios, he’s as well known for his temper as he is for his talent; and like Kyrgios, he’s much more entertaining when he keeps the temper at bay, and lets the talent do the talking.
One point in particular sticks out from Sunday. Lajovic pounced on a forehand and hit it with pace down the line; it looked for a split-second as if it would go for a winner. But then Fognini swooped in seemingly from nowhere, making up all of the ground with one long, smooth slide behind the baseline. A few shots later, it was Fognini’s turn to pounce on a backhand. With an easy swing and perfect timing, he added a good 20 m.p.h. to his normal backhand speed, and fired a bullet that Lajovic had no chance of tracking down.
Playing with ease and competing with purpose—more of that Fognini in the future, please. May the fog stay lifted, and his moment of clarity continue.