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Fabio & Flavia: Fognini aims for family's next late-career US Open run
With newfound support, boundless passion—and someone else’s US Open trophy sitting at home—the frenetic shotmaker is playing better than ever.
Published Aug 20, 2019
Life is good for Fabio Fognini. In April, the gregarious Italian won the biggest title of his career at the Monte Carlo Masters in Monaco, about 25 miles from his home in Sanremo.
“I was practicing from 14 to 18 [years old] sometimes in Monte Carlo,” Fognini says. “Family and friends could come there; it was perfect.”
In June, about two weeks after his 32nd birthday, Fognini cracked the ATP Top 10 for the first time. It took him 15 years in the pros, and three years as a married man—to former Top 10 player and fellow Italian Flavia Pennetta—to reach the milestone.
“Now, of course, I am happy because I can say I’m Top 10—not only Flavia in the family,” Fognini says.
All that’s missing from Fognini’s resume, in his eyes, is his wife’s crowning achievement: a Grand Slam singles title. Flushing Meadows, the site of Pennetta’s major—and also where she announced her retirement, at 33—is something of a sore spot for Fognini.
“I play really, really bad in US Open every year,” he says, “so hopefully this year is going to be a different one.”
Fabio and Flavia have been weaving their stories as two of Italy’s best tennis players long before they
became a couple. They both hail from small cities in opposite parts of the country; Pennetta from Brindisi, in the Apulia region of the south.
The northerner, Fognini, has always had the skill to win a Masters title and crack the Top 10, but his temperament overshadowed his talent. While his fiery self-expression has fueled some big wins—think back to the 2015 US Open, when he rallied from two sets down to beat Rafael Nadal—it’s been an impediment more often. In 2017, he took things too far at the US Open, when he was expelled for using misogynistic language toward chair umpire Louise Engzell. He was fined, disqualified from the doubles event and faced the possibility of a two-Slam ban.
At Wimbledon this July, Fognini, scheduled on Court 14 for his third-round match, said he wished “a bomb would explode on this club.”
The curator of countless racquet smashes and blow-ups, Fognini is always worth watching, no matter how he’s playing. Friends, family and fans have accepted that chaos is part of the Fognini package.
“Fabio is your quintessential Italian in every way,” Tennis Channel global correspondent Prakash Amritraj says. “He’s very charming and talkative, but he’s just sensationally emotional.
“His play has improved a lot because he’s stabilized a little bit, especially this clay-court season. You’ve seen a few times when he could have flown off the handle, but he held it together.”
Fognini’s marriage to Pennetta and the arrival of their son, Federico, in 2017, appears to have provided a calming effect on Fabio. Pennetta, an emotional player herself, also brought an aura of stability and grace to the court. She was revered by staunch competitors like Maria Sharapova, Simona Halep, Garbine Muguruza and Petra Kvitova, who were sad to see her walk away from the game in 2015.
Lucky for them, they’re still seeing Pennetta at tournaments. The 37-year-old is working as a commentator for Eurosport and, of course, watching Fognini’s matches from his player box.
“It’s hard because when you’re outside, you see everything really simple, and you want to help the one that is on the court,” Pennetta says. “But it’s better if you don’t talk and say nothing. Now it’s much better how he’s handling the match and everything. When he plays good, he’s really fun to watch.”
Fognini has tasted major success before. He won the doubles title at the 2015 Australian Open, the same tournament where Pennetta won her lone doubles Slam, four years earlier. She reached No. 1 in doubles; he has been as high as No. 7. He’s the first Italian to win an ATP Masters title; she played in the first-ever all-Italian Grand Slam final. She won 11 tour singles titles; as of July, Fognini has won nine.
Like Pennetta, who left the game at her peak, it’s looking as if Fognini’s best performances may come toward the end of his career. It would certainly fit with the trend of thirty-somethings atop the ATP rankings and podiums.
“You have more confidence and more focus in what you want to do day by day,” Fognini says about his age. “I think now for my position, I should be in the second week of Grand Slams.”
Second weeks are respectable, but Fognini seems capable of more, even if his best Slam result was reaching the Roland Garros quarterfinals, in 2011, and his deepest US Open run was to the fourth round. (Before Pennetta won the Open, she had reached five Grand Slam quarterfinals and a semifinal.)
But with age comes experience and clarity—and, for Fognini, the added comfort of family support. Federico, who turned two in May, has been joining his parents on the road.
“I think he’s finding a way to pull more out of himself,” says Amritraj, who knew Fognini before he began dating Pennetta. “You should have seen them playing with their kid
together in Rome. It was amazing.
“I think family life is irksome for some guys, but for others, it makes them better, and it pulls out beautiful qualities. I totally see that in Fabio.”
The US Open is a memorable place for Fabio and Flavia, even if it hasn’t been Fognini’s best tournament; his record there is just 9–11. Last year, they brought Federico to Flushing Meadows for the first time and showed him his mother’s giant, title-winning photo in the hallway of Arthur Ashe Stadium.
“It was really emotional because we took a photo with Federico in front of that picture,” Pennetta says. “Federico was looking at the picture like, Who is she; is she mom or not?”
Will Federico follow in his parents’ footsteps? Fognini has thoughts on it.
“If I’m looking behind me in the past 15 years, I think I’m really fortunate and really lucky because I was doing a sport for my job,” he reflects. “If [Federico’s] going to try to be a professional tennis player, he has to work a lot, travel a lot and stay away from home.
“Coach Mama is ready. For me, maybe golf or football.”
Pennetta, on the other hand, is ready for anything.
“If he wants to play tennis, I’m going to help him,” she says. “For the moment he loves tennis, football, soccer, basketball. I’m trying to keep him in everything, then he’s going to decide.”
When Pennetta won the US Open, Fognini urged her to play for another year, but she had already made up her mind. He spent more time with her then, traveling together on tours that often intersect at combined events.
Now it’s Fognini who can see the finish line—he says he has one or two years left in him—and he’s trying to save the best for last.
“Tennis in the men’s, there are the [top] three, they are really at the top of the level,” Pennetta says. “But the rest, there is space for everyone, so it’s a good moment to be there.”
Life is good for Fabio, and when he retires, he’ll be able to enjoy as much time with Federico as Flavia does today. But for now, the fire still burns.
“We are both Top 10, but she won a Grand Slam,” Fognini says. “I need a big one."