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Graduation Day for Fabio Fognini in Monte Carlo

Matt Zemek

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Jayne Kamin-Oncea, USA TODAY Sports

This is not rocket science: If you are an underachiever, the only way to undo — or at least diminish — the label of an underachiever is to achieve more. It’s that simple. Fabio Fognini knows this.

Talking more? That doesn’t change labels or earn added amounts of respect.

Coming close? Nope.

Reaching new milestones, crossing new thresholds, raising the bar of performance and results — that’s what changes a reputation and reduces criticism.

It is how it always was. It is how it is now. It is how it always will be in sports. If you think you’re really good, if you believe you’re really special, if you know you are capable of doing more… then DO MORE.

It is not a complicated equation.

Fabio Fognini got sick and tired of being sick and tired this week in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, France, at the Monte Carlo Country Club, and decided to do something about his circumstances and the way he is discussed in tennis circles. Fognini, always long on talent and short on discipline, finally discarded his inconsistencies and his exasperating qualities long enough to make his very first Masters 1000 final. Fognini will turn 32 next month, and it seems that you can teach this Italian veteran some new tricks after all.

Fognini has beaten Rafael Nadal on clay before — very few people share that claim — but he had never done so in a Masters semifinal. Fognini has left a lot of boxes unchecked in his career. He has still never made one major semifinal. Not until last season had he won a tournament which was part of that surface’s normal season (on hardcourt in Los Cabos, part of the hardcourt run-up to the U.S. Open). Fognini’s seven previous titles all occurred in “off-cycle” tournaments for a surface, such as post-Wimbledon clay or February clay, when elite players aren’t playing on that surface in the buildup to more significant tournaments.

This — not February in South America or July in Europe after Wimbledon — is the heart of the clay season. Fognini had not yet reached a final at the Masters 1000 level on clay, and he hadn’t even made a final at a tour stop such as Barcelona or Estoril or even Geneva or Lyon.

Could he beat Rafael Nadal in Monte Carlo, the tournament Rafa has owned as thoroughly as he has owned Roland Garros the past decade and a half? Could Fognini — not 100-percent healthy — find his fighting spirit, his form, and his focus in a moment of genuine and supreme consequence, far more central to his career than Bastad, Gstaad or Umag in late July?

Achieve more. That was the mandate. That is what critics such as myself have always invited Fognini to do.

Saturday, he did it.

This is how it works: Lavish credit shouldn’t be handed out for modest accomplishments, but when a competitor overcomes a mental block and raises his or her ceiling and finally breaks through a barrier, credit will be given.

Yes, anyone can still criticize Fabio Fognini in a larger context for all the money and trophies he has left on the table. Yes, one tournament doesn’t wipe away a full career’s shortcomings. Yes, one week doesn’t completely rewrite Fognini’s story… but here’s the thing about new and higher accomplishments: They deserve to be the main story in the present moment.

Yes, but look at what Fognini failed to accomplish!

Yes, but look at what Fognini could have become!

Yes, but look at what Fognini can do against Nadal on clay — why haven’t we seen more of this?

Yes, but.

Yes, but.

Yes, but.

We can do this all day long with Fognini.

The central story attached to his first Masters final is this: For one day, the “BUT” part of “Yes, but” gets to be eliminated. The “BUT” can be reserved for another day and another week.

This time, Fabio Fognini got out of his own damn way and did the thing. He elevated his game in an important tournament, not in a post-Wimbledon clay 250.

This is what critics such as myself needed to see.

This is what Fabio Fognini delivered.

This is how reputations change — maybe not wholesale, but by degrees and measures.

Six more of these accomplishments in the next few years will create a very different story for Fabio Fognini before the curtain closes on this enigmatic career.

Well-done, Fabio! Today, criticism takes a holiday. You deserve to be richly lauded.

You achieved more. You earned it.

Matt Zemek is the co-editor of Tennis With An Accent with Saqib Ali. Matt is the lead writer for the site and helps Saqib with the TWAA podcast, produced by Radio Influence at radioinfluence.com. Matt has written professionally about men's and women's tennis since 2014 for multiple outlets: Comeback Media, FanRagSports, and independently at Patreon, where he maintains a tennis site. You can reach Matt by e-mail: mzemek@hotmail.com. You can find him on Twitter at @mzemek.

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