When the DJ on Melbourne Arena queued up Dean Martin’s, “That’s Amore”, early Sunday evening, affection spread through the stands on Australia Day, as fans sung and danced along to the classic tune. The same couldn't be said on the court, where love was all but lost.
For the second time, world No. 100 Tennys Sandgren advanced to the last eight of the Australian Open as an unseeded entrant, but not without bundles of flair, emotional highs and lows, and a few escapades presented by his opponent, Fabio Fognini.
Sandgren defeated the No. 12 seed for the second time at a major, 7-6 (5), 7-5, 6-7 (2), 6-4, in three hours and 27 minutes to add to his third-round victory at Wimbledon last year. The 28-year-old improved to 5-2 against Top 20 opposition in major contests and will look to go one step further Down Under when he meets either six-time champion Roger Federer or Hungary’s Marton Fucsovics.
"Playing him is just a war," Sandgren said in an on-court interview. "He's so good. You can never count him out at any stage. I was expecting a fight, and a fight we had."
Though Fognini was the superior server and ball-striker in the opening set, the American hung around by saving five break points. Sandgren was aided by the other side of the net in snatching a one-set lead, as six of the seven points he won in the tiebreaker were courtesy of unforced errors.
Once the set was in the books, that’s when events heated up. Fognini, who received an unsportsmanlike conduct warning from chair umpire Damien Dumusois and proceeded to get up from his chair for an argument, later called for supervisor Gerry Armstrong to come to court. Despite ample time passing during the change of sets, Fognini was granted a bathroom break, prompting Sandgren to have a word with Dumusois for not keeping in line with standard guidelines.
"He doesn't just get some new rules because he's Fabio. Or does he? He argued with you the entire changeover and then goes to the bathroom after time. And you say you’re sticking by the rules?,” a frustrated Sandgren remarked.
“It was time. Just because Gerry says it’s OK, doesn’t mean it’s within the rules of tennis. It means subjectively, Gerry says, ‘sure you can go to the bathroom now’ to make sure it doesn’t break all of his racquets and walk off the court. So, he gets his own rule because you're afraid to step on his toes."
With Martin's crooning blasting as he left the court, the extended break didn’t help Fognini find the love he was looking for. He returned to hit four consecutive unforced errors, including a double fault, to drop serve. Before the players changed ends, Fognini was issued a point penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct for ripping, and then changing his shirt. He told Dumusois he needed the physio immediately to address a blister. That brought Armstrong back on court for another discussion, where Fognini’s request was once again accepted.
He received a medical timeout to tape his right pointer finger, though quickly fell behind 4-0. The crowd continued to urge him on, with one spectator yelling, “come on Fognini, get into it!”
For a solid period, the Italian’s wheels transitioned from spinning in his head to turning rapidly on the court. Serving at 4-1, 30-40, Sandgren had several chances to finish off a 26-shot rally, but Fognini’s court speed was rewarded. Renewed and using the energy of the arena, his forehand took over in winning five straight games. One more twist followed, when Sandgren won 12 of the final 14 points to regain control.
Sandgren broke for a 2-1 lead in the third, before requesting his own medical timeout for what he self-described, his left hip flexor. Explaining to the trainer, Sandgren said, “as I lift, it’s not firing. It has a little bit of pain, like it’s stuck. Feels like I jammed it.”
The break in rhythm and apparent discomfort allowed Fognini to break right back and the two battled it out in yet another tense set. At times, Fognini took his sweet time in setting his return position, a ploy that was unsuccessful in getting under Sandgren's skin. But in the tiebreaker, perhaps edgy to finish the job, Sandgren's hitting dipped and Fognini's held firm to extend the clash.
In the fourth set, the physio returned to work on Sandgren after he held to move ahead 2-1. "I don't need it stretched. I just need it pulled," he said. "When I got up from the last [changeover], I could barely walk." An on-site doctor also encouraged Sandgren to take a pain reliever, which he did.
Throughout the match, Sandgren kept relying on his slider in the deuce court, a tactic that enabled the Gallatin, TN native to minimize pressure when he stepped to the line. He won 16 of 18 first serve points and in the 10th game, wiped away Fognini's 40-15 lead with three successive winners to reach match point. In his best point of the night, Sandgren finished off a 26-shot exchange with a sublime forehand drop volley winner to complete the victory.
"That was fun, right?", Sandgren said on-court.
Fun, fierce and fanatical it was.