You’ve likely heard the phrase that history is written by the winners. But there are times when the story is best written by the losers—in some cases, even before it happens. Just ask Fabio Fognini, beaten handily by Rafael Nadal in their round-of-16 Australian Open match, 6-3, 6-4, 6-2.
Fognini last year authored a book titled, Warning: My Life Between the Lines. Assessing Nadal, Fognini wrote, “Hard to describe how Rafa plays but if I had to use just one word I would say ‘Savage.’ A volcano energy explosion guided by discipline and method.”
Discipline and method are Nadal’s ways of honoring not just the game, but arguably even the entire planet. Consider Nadal the student who believes if he doesn’t do his homework, he is cheating and deserves a poor grade. Deep devotion fuels his profound talent and the creative flair Nadal brings every time he steps on the court.
In a completely different part of the classroom sits Fognini, the whiz kid who scored so high on the assessment test that he was put into the honors class. Surely, somewhere along the way, discipline helped Fognini learn how to hit the tennis ball with such exquisite ease, power and feel. Method? Questionable.
The stylistic contrast, coupled with their history, offered promise. Though Nadal had won 12 of their 16 prior matches, Fognini’s four wins were notable, including a 6-4, 6-2 dismantling at Monte Carlo in 2019 and a lively victory from two sets to love down at the US Open. Said Nadal that Friday evening in New York, “He's a player with a great talent, with huge shots, and he played amazing shots.”
But that night inside Arthur Ashe Stadium happened more than five years ago, during which time Fognini has had surgery on both of his ankles. His last two matches in Melbourne took a lot of energy. Most recently, Fognini earned a comprehensive straight set win over tenacious Aussie Alex de Minaur. Prior to that, he fought off a match point and took nearly four hours to beat his compatriot, Salvatore Caruso, 14-12 in a fifth-set tiebreaker.
Meanwhile, Nadal had played his customary brand of assertive tennis, the Spaniard reaching the round of 16 without the loss of a set. A back problem that plagued Nadal in his first two matches cleared up significantly by his third.
From the start, Nadal demonstrated his tremendous focus, jumping off to a 3-0 lead. Fognini broke back to serve at 2-3, but Nadal—a master at re-breaking—won the next game and soon went up 5-2.
It is incredibly disconcerting to compete versus a player of Fognini’s skill and temperament. Like a snake in the desert, just when it seems he’s about ready to vanish, Fognini bites. Listless as he appeared for much of the first set—forehands flying in all directions—patches of brilliance also surfaced.
Serving at 2-5 in the first set, Fognini won an 11-minute game that saw him fight off three set points, the last with a dazzling crosscourt forehand winner that seemingly kissed the line. At 5-3, though, Nadal easily held at love. Afterwards, Nadal said this set represented the best tennis he’s played during the tournament.
The second set—and, ostensibly, the match—took its pivotal turn during two games and a pair of telling love-40 situations. Picking up the tempo, Fognini broke Nadal at 2-3. Serving at 4-2, the Italian went down love-40, but swiftly evened the game, a comeback aided by two aces. But at deuce, he netted a forehand drop shot, then lined another forehand into the net.
Though back on serve at 3-4, Nadal also faced a love-40 deficit. He too reached deuce. Unlike Fognini, Nadal held, aided point after point by sheer hustle.
From here on, four words: Nadal dashed, Fognini slashed. In pursuit of victory, one man knew, the other hoped. At 4-all, Nadal broke Fognini’s serve and once again served out the set at love.
The third set was a formality. Fognini repeatedly sought closure in the form of drop shots and bold swings. Nadal kept churning. At 5-2, another love hold, this one capped by an ace down the T.
“I try to compete at my highest standards every day,” Nadal said following the match. “Sometimes the highest standards are 60 percent, sometimes they are 100 percent. But I just try to give my best throughout my career, and that's it. For me the main thing is come back home with personal satisfaction that you gave it everything. That's what gives me happiness and makes me stay calm.”
Alluring as the match-up of Fognini versus Nadal appeared, on this occasion, there was little the Italian could do to overcome Nadal’s brand of artistry and inspiration.