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SMOKE, FIRE AND FOG: THE CURIOUS CASE OF FABIO FOGNINI

by

Matt Zemek

Every human being is different. Therefore, every tennis player is different. Not all players can — or should — be judged the same way. Players are all subjected to certain forces, but the track records they establish in responding to those forces are different, which merits an acceptance of divergent career paths and accordingly unique career needs.

Fabio Fognini — in his psychological profile and in his tennis — offers anything but a cookie-cutter profile. He is, to those who enjoy him, a “character, a genuine original, a large personality,” someone who spices things up. Those who do not enjoy him are put off by his volcanic temper. Love him or hate him, he is anything but typical.

After his Wednesday loss in the second round of the Rogers Cup in Toronto to Denis Shapovalov, it is easy to criticize Fognini. I will do precisely that… but not for the reason you might think. It is in the nature of an enigmatic athlete to merit criticism on one front when many people will criticize him for something else.

Let’s get to the heart of a story which is not free of negativity, but is a lot less negative than some might expect.

Many people in the tennis community might easily be upset at Fognini for playing Los Cabos — an ATP 250 — the week before a Masters 1000 in Toronto. Fognini snapped up the championship in Mexico for 250 points, but then had to make the long cross-continental flight to Canada and bow out early, depriving himself of the best chance to make a deep run in Toronto. Fognini’s foray to Mexico — and subsequent loss in Canada — could merit scorn and disapproval on their own terms, but they might seem even more foolish to outside observers in light of the fact that the man Fognini defeated in the Los Cabos final, Juan Martin del Potro, had to withdraw from the Rogers Cup due to concerns about his often-delicate wrist.

I talk about player scheduling a lot, and on the surface of things, it is easy for me (and anyone else) to eviscerate Fognini for playing Los Cabos the week before Canada. If you have been reading my other columns and listening to podcasts on player scheduling, you probably think I will come down hard on Fognini for his scheduling.

This is the surprise: I won’t.

If you look at Fognini’s history, a few basic — and significant — details emerge. Merely two suffice to undergird the central points I am about to make.

Detail number one: Fognini has never been a top-10-ranked player, his high being 13. (His current ranking is 14.)

Detail number two: With one exception, Fognini’s haul of ATP titles (8) has come in “offseason” tournaments, all on the same surface: clay.

The true clay season is, of course, from April through mid-June at Roland Garros. Fognini’s seven clay titles came either in the February-March South American swing — the secondary part of the late-winter season compared to hardcourt events in Rotterdam, Dubai, Acapulco, and then Indian Wells and Miami — or in the summer clay sequence after Wimbledon. Those are “niche” tournaments largely populated by clay-court specialists, as opposed to the elite players in the world. Dominic Thiem is the exception which proves the rule. The best players on tour are either resting or playing on other surfaces during those swings, hence the notion of an “offseason” clay tournament.

The only non-offseason tournament Fognini won was his most recent one in Los Cabos. The first week of August is properly seen as part of the summer hardcourt season leading through the U.S. Open, so that was not an “offseason” title. It was an “in-season” title, Fognini’s only championship on a non-clay surface. With seven of his titles being 250s and only one 500 to his credit (Hamburg in July of 2013), Fognini has needed these “offseason” events to win trophies. It has been his bread and butter.

This leads to the complexities which Fabio Fognini delivers.

If you have enough talent to be a top-five-level player but have never made good on that talent (more on that later), and you know that your most reliable and proven method of winning titles (and therefore accumulating rankings points) is to play 250s and 500s not populated by many top players, well……… that’s exactly what you should do.

Fognini, to his credit, has done so.

This is a feature, not a bug, on an immediate level. Fognini deserves to be praised for scheduling to his strengths and then delivering the goods to make a legitimate run at the ATP Finals in London. I know I didn’t expect Fabio to be this much of a threat for London. I have often been critical of his play in the past, so his ability to harness good form and sustain it for a few weeks merits applause. It is better than what has come before, and the fact that Fabio demolished del Potro — easily his best win in any of his eight championship conquests — adds even more luster to his portfolio.

Fognini married a smart schedule with excellent tennis and made it work for him. That is professionalism through and through.

See? This is not nearly as negative as you might have thought…

… but with that unexpected plot deviation having been unfurled, one can’t finish this column without the obvious postscript.

Very simply, Fabio Fognini should not be the kind of player who has to rely on offseason clay titles for his trophies and rankings points. Obviously, Fognini should be able to put up more of a fight at big tournaments and make himself a more regular threat at Masters 1000 and major events.

One major quarterfinal (no semifinals) and two Masters semifinals (no finals), for a man who is so conspicuously and abundantly talented, represents underachievement on a massive scale. Yes, Fognini has burnished his resume to a degree by taking advantage of late-February clay and post-Wimbledon summers — better to win those events, once entered into, than not — but the fact that he would need to schedule like that in order to rack up points and trophies is, nevertheless, a manifestation of how much he has left on the table in his career.

If Fabio Fognini had been a top-five player with several Masters finals on his ledger sheet, there is no way he should have played in Sweden or Los Cabos. Under the circumstances, however, Fognini’s career merited that kind of schedule in 2018… and Fabio made it work for him. That overwork cost him in Toronto, but it was nevertheless the smart thing to do.

The fact that it WAS the smart thing for Fognini to do, though, is exactly why the larger arc of his career elicits so much disappointment.

The curious case of Fabio Fognini doesn’t lend itself to neat, linear observations.Source:

Matthew Lewis/Getty Images Europe

 

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