by Roldano Lupi
MONACO. The 31 years old Italian won the Rolex Monte-Carlo Masters on Sunday for his first ATP Masters 1000 title, but downplayed the exagerated publicity. He honestly declared that the favorite on clay is still Rafael Nadal.
Fognini proved this week that he can beat anyone in the world when he’s at his best. His next test is the Italian Open, Internazionali BNL d’Italia or Rome Masters, the last of 3 major clay tournaments of the season that lead to second Grand Slam of the year, Roland Garros. Being an ATP Masters 1000 Series and WTA Premier 5 event, the tournament serves as preparation for the top ATP and WTA players. Past champions in Rome include greats such as Corretja, Nadal, Djokovic, Sharapova, Williams, Hingis, Mauresmo and many others. The tournament starts May 12th, but Qualifiers start May 6, 2019. “I’m just thinking about the next tournament, the next match that I would like to play, and we will see if I’m in really good shape. You have to be lucky also in the draw. It’s a lot of things. But it’s not my problem right now, believe me.” he said. His incredible week in Monte-Carlo seemed improbable at the start. Fognini arrived at this event with no wins over a player in the Top 50 of the ATP Rankings this season and an 0-4 record on clay. He trailed by a set and faced five break points for 1-5 in the second set of his opening-round match against Russian qualifier Andrey Rublev, but found a way to pull off a comeback win. Buoyed by the victory and aided by a second-round walkover against Frenchman Gilles Simon, Fognini came alive. Wins over third seed Alexander Zverev of Germany and ninth seed Borna Coric of Croatia were the appetizer to his shocking semi-final upset of Nadal, which saw Fognini take 11 of the last 14 games against the Spaniard.
Walking onto Court Rainier III at the Monte-Carlo Country Club to play Rafael Nadal is a daunting task. The Spaniard has won 11 titles on the main court at the Rolex Monte-Carlo Masters. But on Saturday 20 April, Italian Fabio Fognini felt no fear. In fact, he says he played up his chances to Nadal himself. “With Rafa, it’s always difficult,” Fognini said. “I was telling him yesterday that I knew that I have the game to play against him. Sometimes I won, a few matches. One crazy one in the US Open and two times on clay. So I knew that I had nothing to lose, because, of course, especially when you go with him on clay, it’s always really tough.”
Fognini capped off the tournament with another high-quality performance against Dusan Lajovic of Serbia for the title 6-3, 6-4 in one hour and 38 minutes. With his forehand proving to be a key factor in his semi-final win against Nadal, Fognini continued to enjoy success from that wing early in the opening stages of the second set. Fognini broke for a 3-2 lead with great defensive skill, retrieving balls from behind the baseline to extend points and extract errors from his opponent. The 31-year-old maintained his advantage through to 5-4 and served with confidence to claim the title, converting his second match point as Lajovic mistimed his forehand return. “I was preparing for the match as best I can because he has my ex-coach and I knew it was going to be really tough, a lot of running,” Fognini said. “It’s an incredible achievement. I’m really, really happy.” Fognini’s happiness off the court is translating into success on the court. He spoke highly of the stability that his wife, former US Open champion Flavia Pennetta, and their nearly two-year-old son, Federico, have brought into his life.
The family support seemed to extend to the entire crowd inside Court Rainier III, who loudly cheered him on throughout his matches. Fognini was born 45 minutes away in Sanremo and practised at the tournament site growing up. He admitted that Monte-Carlo feels like his home tournament and made lifting the trophy even more surreal. Fognini earns 1000 ATP Rankings points and receives €958,055 in prize money. Lajovic gains 600 points and €484,950 for his run to the championship match. Fognini is the eighth player to win his first Masters 1000 title over the past 17 events at the elite level. In the 92 ATP Masters 1000 events prior to 2017 Rome, only eight players won their first Masters 1000 crown. So, we can actually say that Fabio made history, becoming the first Italian to win an ATP Masters 1000 title. Fognini is the second oldest tennis player to win the first “1000” (the first is John Isner with the victory in Miami in 2018). The last Italian to triumph in Montecarlo was Nicola Pietrangeli in 1968 (although it was not an Open tournament), after winning in 1961 and 1967 and the last to establish himself in a more or less equivalent tournament was Adriano Panatta in Rome in 1976.