Fognini fights from two sets down to edge Opelka at Australian Open

Fognini fights from two sets down to edge Opelka at Australian Open

The 12th-seeded Italian won all three sets contested on Tuesday, after the first-rounder was postponed because of rain on Monday.

MELBOURNE—Call it an epic Western: a three-hour and 15-minute back-and-forth stroll, all pointed towards a 23-minute shootout. Such was a two-day epic between Reilly Opelka and Fabio Fognini, won on Tuesday afternoon by the Italian, 3-6, 6-7 (3), 6-4, 6-3, 7-6 (5). 

“Fabio stepped up today, which I was expecting,” said Opelka, the 38th-ranked American with a serve fit for a gunfight.

Last night, Opelka had walked off Court 1573 leading No. 12 seed Fognini 6-3, 7-6 (3), 1-0. Oddly enough, Opelka had taken the lead in gusty, uncomfortable, heavy conditions that usually make it hard for him to attack. Yet Opelka was winning, aided by 29 winners in the first two sets, including 16 aces. 

“He didn’t have a chance the first two sets,” Opelka said. 

Having beaten Fognini in the first round of the US Open last year, Opelka surely felt confident he could repeat that effort.     

“I’m not feeling ball really well,” Fognini said of this play yesterday.

But this afternoon, the conditions were different.

“I was lucky that the rain came,” said Fognini. “He was playing better than me.”  

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With temperatures in the 60s and no humidity, it was the slick-paced tennis environment Opelka felt would aid his aggressive game. But that was not the case today. Fognini was the one who snapped up the next two sets to take it into a fifth.

“He’s a great returner and he passes really well," Opelka said, "so it’s difficult for me to come in on him.”       

There followed 12 games of dominant serving, Fognini winning 11 return points, Opelka a scant four. The atmosphere hroughout the fifth set was a low hum—an appreciation of each player’s winning points, but with scarcely a compelling rally, a looming awareness that, soon enough, it would be swiftly decided. 

So it was. Here in Melbourne, at 6-6 in the decisive set it’s the first to ten points. All told, these two would play 315 points. But at heart, two told the tale. 

With Opelka serving at 2-3 into the ad court, Fognini deftly carved a short crosscourt slice backhand, the kind of feathery shot you often see at tennis clubs on Sunday morning (with a bit more pace, but not much). In came Opelka—by his own admission, rather awkwardly—to slice a crosscourt approach shot.  Poorly knifed, sitting up comfortably to the Fognini backhand, Opelka was an easy target, the Italian lacing a down-the-line passing shot winner to seize the first service break of the tiebreaker.  

On the next point, Opelka serving at 2-4, Fognini lofted a semi-moonball of a forehand deep enough to elicit a short ball from Opelka that allowed him to crack open the point.

Having taken not just one, but two points off Opelka’s mighty serve, Fognini was now in command. The 5-2 lead swiftly became 7-2m and soon enough it was over. 

Given how heartily Fognini often sulks and appears ready to throw in the towel, it’s impressive to note that this was the eighth time he had rallied from two sets down to win a match.

“I remember watching him beat Nadal at the US Open from two sets down, so by no means was I expecting it to be one set and out today," Opelka said. "I knew he was going to play more aggressive.”

Explaining what it took to rally from so far down, Fognini said, “You have to really focus…you have to be lucky and just try to play your best tennis.” 

If two points were arguably the difference today, perhaps in the bigger picture the match was decided years ago, in the mind, in the eyes and on the courts where each player learned the game. In one corner, there was Fognini, his game all one of craftsmanship, skill, feel and an awareness of tennis’ shape and texture. At his best, Fognini treats the ball like a cat toying with a mouse. If we can do without the sulk, the rest can be sublime. Call Fognini a tortured artist. 

And Opelka?  Unquestionably utilitarian and frequently effective. But the nimbleness of movement and the flexibility for handling variations in pace, spin and height remain a work in progress. Still, at the age of 22, as the likes of the 32-year-old Fognini and many more are showing, Opelka has many years to continue his refinement.