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ROME -- Some tennis champions are easy to love. The grace, gentlemanly behavior and enduring excellence of Roger Federer make him a rarity—a player admired even by his vanquished opponents. Half-bull, half-bullfighter, Rafa Nadal displays an on-court, testosterone-driven truculence that might be expected to limit affection for him. But his myriad supporters revere him for his relentless effort and refusal to quit. Although both men are among my favorites, I confess a secret vice. I’m a committed fan of Fabio Fognini, which is the same as admitting to sympathy for the devil.
Everything about Fognini appears calculated to prevent spectators from siding with him. His Mephistophelean moustache and goatee suggest he has seen and done things other men cannot imagine. As if to hammer home this impression, he used to endorse a brand of clothing Oxygen whose label showed a death’s head insignia. In one of his evolving incarnations Andre Agassi resembled a pirate. Not to be outdone, Fognini resembled Satan.
And his walk! What could possibly be more arrogantly provocative? At 5 ft 10 inches, one of the little guys on the tour, he struts around like Nureyev striking poses. Between points he swans from deuce court to ad court and back again. At change-overs, he swanks around like a peacock, seldom deigning to glance at his opponent. To the list of competitors who get into the other guy’s head, Fognini occupies a category all his own. His every disdainful gesture seems dead set on psyching out the fellow on the far side of the net.
All this may make Fognini sound like an opera-bouffe villain, the sort who inevitably gets his comeuppance in the last act. But what redeems his posturing and preening is his transcendent talent. The Italian devil has got game as he has demonstrated over the years, taking down Nadal three times on clay, most recently in the semifinals at Monte Carlo, a Masters level event that he went on to win.
More than merely a crafty dirtballer, he has also beaten Rafa on a hard surface at the 2015 US Open, fighting back from two sets down. (In fairness, this victory left him playing second fiddle in Italy and in his own household to his wife Flavia Pennetta, who won the singles title at the 2015 US Open.)
Hall of Fame Italian tennis writer Gianni Clerici commented about Fognini’s marriage to Pennetta that Fabio needed a nurse, preferably one with a background in psychology. But the union appears to have steadied Fognini as has the birth of three children. He’s less likely now to melt down on court.
Still the clock on his career has started to click faster. Now 36 and currently ranked 130 in the world, he’s had to restrict himself to playing events against more modest competitors.
This week while the top stars are in Torino preparing for the ATP finals, Fognini is in Metz, France, at a lower tier tournament. In the first round he eked out a 7-6/7-6 win over a young Brazilian. The next round he confronted Alexander Bublik, a Kazakstani ranked 100 rungs above him, and at 6 ft 5 inches a man capable of blowing opponents away with his blistering serve or of bamboozling them with an infuriating arsenal of trick shots.
Predictably Bublik dominated the first set 6-4. But Fognini responded with great freghismo, the Italian I-don’t-give-a-damn attitude that makes him so maddening to men who believe they have him on the ropes.
Alternating the speed and spin of his shots, opening the court with short-angled strokes, Fognini often changed gears and suddenly crushed winners. Defying his reputation for being out of shape and for losing his composure Fognini bore down and beat Bublik in two tie-breaks to take the match in three sets.
In the next round, he’ll face a fellow Italian, Lorenzo Sonego, who figures to be the clear favorite. But then it’s never wise to bet against the infernal Fabio Fognini.
______________________________________________________________________________Michael Mewshaw is the author of 23 books, the most recent a memoir about Graham Greene, My Man in Antibes.
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