It all began as he nonchalantly engaged a routine short ball, striking it straight down the middle and carelessly close to clearing the baseline. No initial call came, but as Jurgen Melzer’s response soared into the clouds and eventually landed far beyond the opposing baseline, a belated call of “out” suddenly pierced the surrounding speakers and reverberated around the court.
As if spontaneously taken by some desperate urge to ditch tennis and enter the world of football, Fabio Fognini responded by diving into the hallowed grass at Wimbledon in bitter protest, arms held aloft above his head, pleading a thousand times over to the Gods while a chorus of delicately-accented cries of “no, no, no!” exploded from his mouthpiece. Within seconds, he had landed face-first in the soil with such vigorous melodrama that even the likes of Luis Suarez would have hung their heads in embarrassment.
One of the youtube videos to capture this glorious moment branded it the “Fognini show a (sic) Wimbledon”. And The Fognini Show didn’t finish there; as he struggled uncouthly back onto both feet and immediately staggered directly towards the origin of that fateful out call, Fognini engulfed the umpire in wave after furious wave of flamboyant Italian protests. Aside from one or two umpires who occasionally nervously fluff their lines and respond with flustered contradictions, the usual stock umpire retort to a protesting player is that hard-line assurance that the final call was correct one. From Pascal Maria, however, neither came. Instead, as Fognini approached with fire in his eyes, the umpire responded by burying his face firmly into his palm, shaking his head and wheezing from his chest in a futile attempt to guard against unprofessionally erupting into unashamed laughter. But the ridiculousness the had just unfolded in front of Maria’s eyes was all too much for him, and who could blame him?
After all, to be more specific, this was the Fognini Comedy Show. Even after routine unforced errors and uninspired performances, somehow the result is always the same. The crowd laughs. The umpire laughs. Everyone, including occasionally the man himself, laughs.
As in this instance, the entertainment provided by Mr Fogna is often far from the deliberate showmanship delivered by Gael Monfils or the like. Rather, he is the often unintentional joker of the pack. He’s that character so deliberately slotted into movies who carries the sole purpose of providing much-needed comic relief to otherwise deadly serious surroundings. Just as they remain omnipresent yet rarely find themselves entwined in those complicated and well-woven plot-lines, Fognini has managed to strike a constant amusing presence on the ATP – dipping his toes in and out of the top 50 – while rarely clearing the bridge onto pastures new due to a variety of choking, untapped talent and general inability to take himself serious. His year end rankings since 2009: 54, 55, 48, 45.
But that was Wimbledon. 10 matches later — 10 of the most unlikely consecutively strung together victories later, suddenly the landscape has transformed beyond measure and reason. The first two titles of Fabio Fognini’s career arrived like London buses on a cold, dreary night, making a mockery of the long wait endured. Perhaps the most impressve aspect of it all wasn’t even the factual achievement of winning 10 matches on the trot. More interesting was the how. The manner in which he transcended himself, rising from a theatrical gift yet tennistical nightmare to an opportunistic and clinical winner.
Both victories were notably identical. Each time, the Italian stormed into the final without a loss of a set, moonwalking past Haas with the score of 6-2 6-4 in both events. Not merely did this indicate that he was playing well enough to win the title, but he showcased some wondrous tennis in the process. The final hurdle arrived and proved the toughest in each event. In Stuttgart, Fognini dropped the first set 5-7 – the majestic, clean and precise tennis nowhere to be seen. But rather than collapsing to the ground in dramatic despair like a few weeks earlier, he composed himself and eventually eeked it out in three sets. The second final placed him into an even more perilous situation – a set and break down followed by three separate match points in the second-set tiebreak. Nerves radiated from both men as they contemplated what could be either the greatest victory and worst loss of their careers. After much flailing around, Fognini had the wherewithal to control himself in the latter stages and simply plug as many balls as humanly possible to Del Bonis weaker side, his backhand. The backhand errors came. The match points were saved. The comeback was eventually complete. Each final was won in, for a man so famously consumed by his looks, an uncharacteristically unattractive fashion. But the W was all that mattered.
For a character so endlessly entertaining, it speaks volumes that it could be argued he is at his most interesting when simply striking a ball with fury within the dimensions of the court. Not unlike the majority of ATP players, his game is built around a big forehand that orchestrates most of his offenses, and one that routinely sweeps around his backhand in order to command each and every angle of the court.
But there’s something so…Fabio Fognini about Fabio Fognini’s game. He strolls around the courts so relaxed and disinterestedly, shoulders hitched back as if coolly waltzing around the beach with his face in impassive relaxation, and it reflects in his game. Every single aspect of his game appears as lazily abbreviated as humanly possible. For example, the usage of the word “motion” in Fognini’s service motion is somewhat questionable given that the only motion detectable in his serve is the mandatory action of throwing up his arms before connecting with the ball. The backhand too is barely a stroke – the take-back isn’t so much a take-back as it is a barely visible flick of the wrist and half the time he doesn’t bother to even finish the stroke, aborting the swing immediately after contact rather than finishing over his right shoulder like most sane tennis players. At times, he appears to have no intention but to rally for no apparent reason, and as for his footwork, well, what footwork?
But then, out of nowhere, The Fog will lift mid-rally as he erupts into life; timing the ball with majestic perfection to generate the majority of his power, gliding around with immaculate and precise footwork that allows that forehand full reign, sweeping through his backhand with a smoothly timed-pivot for maximum power, hugging the baseline and devastating his opponents by re-deflecting their own pace.
Much of this was on-show as Fognini finally made his move in professional tennis, catapulting into the top 20 and warning that, with the histrionics at least momentarily gone and the mental collapses in the rear-view mirrors for now, it may just be that The Fognini Comedy Show has decided on a new genre.