What is there to know about Fabio Fognini? He is the languid, deviant pirate of tennis. With a skull headband wrapped around his dome, he does a stout little swagger around the court. He does not swing his racket very dramatically, but very dramatic things happen to the ball after it leaves his racket. And when in his zone, as he was intermittently during his Wimbledon third-round match against Andy Murray, he appears to enter a gaseous, blissed-out state of mind. You can almost see him go limp and heavy-lidded between the time he hits the ball over the net and the time the ball comes within five feet of him, as if he was taking little cat naps upright on the grass. Then his sludgy feet move the bare minimum to get within striking distance, then he takes a terse little backswing, and then he has bashed it somewhere unpredictable, and you aren’t sure how he managed to get away with any of it.
Fognini is a genuine shotmaker in the purest sense of that word, which might isolate “hits the hell out of the ball at wild speeds and angles and out of weird positions” from the innumerable aspects of playing tennis well—like movement, anticipation, equanimity of mind, consistency. He makes shots, with serious feel and athleticism, with hands way wiser than his conscious mind. Surveying what the No. 28 seed conjured up in the extremely entertaining fourth set, which he looked poised to steal, you’ll find vicious slices, pace that erupts from nowhere, soft hands, and all kinds of miscellany that’s hard to name.
But despite going down 5-2 in the fourth, Murray managed to outlast this barrage of weirdness, defuse four set points, and take the last five games of the set to fend off the upset, 6-2, 4-6, 6-1, 7-5. Whatever genius got Fognini to that fourth-set lead is liable to abandon him just as quickly. He is the kind of player who could win a set 6-0 or lose it 0-6 and you wouldn’t be particularly surprised either way. Though we were robbed of a fifth set and the promise of more strangeness to come, this still might have been the best match on the men’s side thus far.
Today was far from the first time Fognini was a great player’s headache. With this win Murray avenged a straight-sets loss at the Italian Open in May, one that had him screaming at his own legs. Historically Fognini has given Rafael Nadal fits, and could have—would have, if he’d managed to keep his head screwed on during a tiebreak, a sizable if—beaten Rafa right in the middle of his 17-1 clay season. Murray had this to say about Italian’s off-kilter game after the match:
Given his last match against resourceful junk-baller Dustin Brown, top seed Murray has been a magnet for all the temperamental oddballs, and producing very watchable matches as a result. Fortunately that trend will only continue: he gets Benoit Paire in the fourth round.