You might think that once a player has won a tournament 11 times, there wouldn’t be much that could make him anxious or throw him off his game. You would be wrong. That’s not how tennis, or its greatest champions, operate.
From the first moments of his semifinal with Fabio Fognini in Monte Carlo on Saturday, it was clear that Rafael Nadal—11-time winner in Monaco and the long-undisputed King of Clay—was out of sorts. He hit two backhands into the bottom of the net. He struggled to send his forehands past the service line. He retreated behind the baseline and hit shots off his back foot. He took even longer than normal between points. Finally, after 12 minutes, he was broken.
Center Court at the Monte Carlo Country Club is usually one of Nadal’s homes away from home; he’s been coming here since 2003, and winning here since 2005. But two things were making him uncomfortable in his own living-room-by-the-sea today: The wind and the Fog. The former made the ball dance and knuckle and flutter unpredictably; the latter drilled it past him, with devastating ease.
“It was this kind of day that everything was wrong,” Nadal would say later.
Fognini is one of the rare players whom Nadal has a reason to fear on clay. Coming into this match, Rafa had an 11-3 record against Fognini, but the Italian had two wins over him on dirt—a Herculean effort—and he had beaten him in a late-night classic at the US Open in 2015. Yes, Rafa had won all six meetings since then, but Fognini had taken sets from him on clay in Madrid in 2017 and Rome in 2018. The way Rafa nervously failed to swing through his forehands in the early going on Saturday, it was obvious he hadn’t forgotten that history.
It likely didn’t help that the 31-year-old Fognini, who has complained about Monte Carlo’s center court in the past and hadn’t been past the second round there since 2014, was suddenly looking like a man of destiny in Monaco. To reach the semifinals, he had fought back from the brink of defeat against Andrey Rublev, upset Alexander Zverev, and come from a set down to beat Borna Coric. Along the way, he had been buoyed by boisterous fans from just across the Italian border.
Still, few would have guessed that Fognini would play what might have been the match of his career against Nadal. Other than a few flat-footed errors early in the first set, Fognini was nearly flawless. He stepped inside the baseline, took Nadal’s topspin early, and sent frozen-rope winners screaming past the Spaniard. When he wasn’t doing that, Fognini was flipping nonchalant drop shots that Nadal could only wave at. Typically, Rafa’s best opponents can maintain that sky-high level for a few games or a set before the errors creep in. Fognini only climbed higher. After coming within a point of issuing Rafa a rare bagel on clay, Fognini finished his 6-4, 6-2 victory with a forehand bullet that clipped the baseline for one final winner.
As for Rafa, he never stopped making errors, never improved his court position, never gained control of the rallies, and only began to play with any sort of aggression once he was down 5-0, 40-0 in the second set.
“It was a tough day, and Fabio was a difficult opponent,” said Nadal, who lost his first set in Monte Carlo since 2017, and his first match there since 2015. “I am coming from low moments in terms of injuries, and in terms of the mental side, it has not been easy to accept all the things that have been going on.”
“I probably played one of the worst matches on clay in 14 years.”
In recent seasons, we’ve seen male players from Stan Wawrinka to Kevin Anderson become late-blooming Top 10 contenders. Is something like that possible for the ultra-talented, ultra-volatile Fognini? We’re not there yet; after 14 years on tour, this will be his first Masters 1000 final. Let’s start by finding out if he really is a man of destiny in Monte Carlo.
What we can say is that this match makes the clay season more interesting, as well the draw at the French Open: Will Fognini land near Nadal in Paris? We’ll be wondering that for the next five weeks.