When a tennis shot is shanked, shallow, spinless, or otherwise borked, the culprit is often a too-tight arm. The more an amateur tries to muscle the ball, the less they’ll actually accomplish. Power comes from relaxed muscles working in unison. There might not exist a material in the tennis universe looser than Fabio Fognini. Probably in some cases he could stand to be a little less loose. Points away from beating the best clay player ever, on clay, in a huge semifinal, Fabio Fognini was tittering with a ball kid, oblivious.
With arms looser than overcooked bucatini, Fognini outplayed Rafael Nadal, earning three chances to bagel the king at Monte Carlo, a tournament Nadal has won 11 times. Rafa hasn’t been bageled on clay since 2007. Though Fognini faltered after going up 40-0 in that service game, he still won the match 6-4, 6-2, and went on to beat Dusan Lajovic in the final on to claim the biggest title of his life on Sunday. At 31, he became the second-oldest person to win a Masters for the first time.
Fognini’s highest level is hard to come by, but alarming when it does emerge. He makes ridiculously clean contact with the ball and can plant it wherever he likes. In the second set, he made Nadal look as helpless as someone playing Rafael Nadal on clay:
It’s odd to consider, but Fognini’s belated success and his ability to outhit Nadal likely share a common cause. The looseness is not a bug, or even a feature really, but the entire product, with flaws and perks all its own. Take it or leave it. Sometimes it means Fognini will be totally disengaged for weeks at a time. Sometimes he’ll look disinterested in a rally, only to perk up suddenly and produce some of the most technically demanding shots in the sport. I used to think he was slow, until I realized he was so fast he could afford to look that sluggish in between strokes. It is probably not possible to play the way Fabio Fognini plays—liquid, spacey, sporadically genius—unless you have the mind he has. It is not exactly a replicable blueprint for beating Nadal, but it has worked for Fognini about as well as any other plan has worked for anyone else.
Take Nadal’s first French Open in 2005 as the start point of his dominance on clay. Since then, only 13 men have beaten him on the surface, in 25 matches. Fognini now has three to his name. Only Novak Djokovic has more, with seven; Dominic Thiem, the next generation’s clay king, also has three. That’s deeply strange company for Fognini. Overall, Nadal still maintains the 11-4 career edge. The sole off-clay win was Fognini’s most memorable: He came back from two sets down at the 2015 U.S. Open to win in five. It’s the only time Nadal has ever lost a five-setter after going up two.
Fognini is just 5-foot-10 and has the weak serve to match. He has won just 69 percent of his service games this season, which puts him at No. 78 on tour; there’s a huge gap between that and his current career-high No. 12 ranking. Fognini compensates for his lackluster delivery in a number of ways: raw foot speed and an elegantly controlled slide on clay; the willingness to attempt surprising shots from bad court positions; the racket touch to actually pull those shots off; the ability to flatten out and crush a ball when necessary, which often eludes players of his stature; a mind of pure lava lamp goop. He isn’t all fun, of course; there’s also his history of vile remarks to an ump. But he has more or less kept it together since receiving a stiff punishment for those words. And he’s never kept his tennis together for as long as last week’s Monte Carlo run, which saw him storm back from the brink of defeat in the second round, and proceed to beat three of the tournament’s top ten seeds.
Fognini reached the pinnacle of his career this week. He beat Rafael Nadal on clay, too. And he is as likely to win the French Open as he is to go winless the rest of the clay season. That’s just the Fognini Way. You never know when he’s going to lose to the world No. 107 or win a title in a Coolio hairdo. The best you can do is try and find a way to enjoy both outcomes.