by Robert Davis
Fresh from his first ATP World Tour final, Fabio Fognini is showing all the right signs that he is on the right track.
With good looks and a certain swagger, Fabio Fognini comes across as confident - maybe even cocky at times. But those who know him best will tell you there's more to the Italian than meets the eye.
Fabio Fognini has just about everything an Italian man could hope for: good looks, new car, house by the Mediterranean Sea and a stunning model girlfriend. By all accounts he is living the dream. Everyone knows that in Italy looking good is just as important as being good. And for a long time Fabio Fognini looked great. From the day he first picked up a tennis racquet at the age of four, Fabio has impressed everyone who has ever seen him stroke a tennis ball.
Nobody ever said that it was going to be easy, and so the journey on the ATP World Tour for Fabio Fognini has been filled with just as many valleys as peaks. But last year, the Italian reached out to one of Spain’s most respected tennis coaches, Jose Perlas, for help. It did not take long for heads in the tennis industry to start nodding in the affirmative.
"It is very simple. Fabio went to Jose because he wants to improve,” says coach Claudio Pistolesi. “He knew that he had some holes in his game, and that he is obviously very far from his best. That is why he chose Jose.”
“It was not his talent that impressed me,” admits Perlas. “The ATP is full of mucho mucho talento. What impresses me about Fabio is how much he suffers for it. That is where my attraction to him as a tennis player begins and ends. I have known him for a long time, since he was with Oscar Serrano. After observing him, I realised that this boy really wants to be great.”
To the casual observer, the last thing Fabio Fognini appears to do on a tennis court is suffer.
Watch him hit a forehand during a third set tie-break. With little bend in the legs, minimal backswing and almost no shoulder or hip rotation, his forehand drive looks more like an annoyed swat than a stroke under pressure. Whether it goes in, out or under the net, Fognini looks as if he would just as rather be relaxing on the beach.
If only his father could be so lucky.
“There are times I cannot watch my son when he is on the tennis court,” says Fabio’s father, Fulvio Fognini. “One second he is up. One second he is down. You cannot imagine what I go through when Fabio plays tennis.”
“The most important thing in Fabio’s life is his father,” says coach Ricardo Piatti. “His father put so much of his energy into Fabio. He loves Fabio so much and he loves tennis. He is a traditional Italian father, very emotional. And that Fabio is doing well on the ATP makes him very proud.”
Quite possibly, Fabio Fognini has the slowest walk known to man.
“If you don’t know Fabio very well, you want to strangle him,” laughs Pistolesi. “But I know him very well and I guarantee you he is a great person. Very sincere and kindhearted. What some people might call an attitude is actually coming from his shyness. And the walk. Well, that is very Italian. At least it has style.”
For someone who moves so slow between points, Fognini is awfully quick during the point.
“He reads the game like a book,” says Perlas. “His anticipation of where the ball is going next is something special. He does not have to be always on the run. When it is time to run he is very explosive.”
The challenge for the 24-year-old Italian has never been getting to the ball or even hitting the ball, it has been about managing the momentum of the match. That is one of the primary reasons that Fognini went to Perlas.
At the Internazionali BNL d’Italia, Fognini sits down with DEUCE to talk about his recent history at Roland Garros and what Coach Perlas brings to the table. With thick dark eyebrows, high cheekbones and a hard cut chin framed by a neatly trimmed, jet black goatee Fabio Fognini could easily pass for a leading actor in a Sergio Leone film.
That the 2010 second round match became a drama at all was a shock. Gael Monfils was in cruise control on Court Phillip Chartrier, leading Fognini by two sets to none and up a break at 4-1. When the match was eventually halted at 5-5 in the fifth because of darkness, it seemed as if all those watching were witnesses to some kind of surreal gladiatorial battle.
When they returned the next day, the tension had dropped just slightly, but if you listened closely enough you could almost hear the theme song from 'The Good, The Bad and The Ugly' when Fognini entered the court.
“This match was just incredible,” recalls Fognini. “I don’t know how I won. What can I say?”
Fognini attempts a smile. It is not a proud smile, but more of an apologetic smile. He lowers his head and waits for the next question.
I ask him about the following year’s fourth round match versus Albert Montanes in which he saved two match points in the fifth set and played the final five games with a leg injury.
“I really don’t have any answers,” Fognini says. “Except, maybe I made some forehand winners on a couple of big points.”
That is certainly an understatement. Spend some time getting to know Fabio Fognini and the phrase paradigm shift might come to mind.
“It is easy to confuse him,” says Perlas. “He is not so confident with people he does not know very well. He can get a little paralysed. But if he is comfortable with you he is very funny and loves to joke. He is very kind to people.”
“Fabio is a kind boy,” says the elder Fognini. “But yes, I admit that a person might not think so if they do not know him. He is very timid.”
When I ask him about the coaching change to Perlas, Fognini livens up, a big smile spreads across his face. Fognini is happy to talk about someone other than himself.
“I am lucky to have Jose,” says Fognini. “I am trying my best to learn all that he can teach me. Jose brings so much experience with great players. He is the best one who can help me raise my level. If he gives me the game plan, I feel that I have the game to execute his tactics. I trust him.”
When asked the question, “Has tennis given you more or have you given tennis more?” he takes a minute to think it over.
“Until two or three years ago, I would say that tennis had given me more,” Fognini replies. “But the last couple of years, I feel like I have tried to give my best to tennis. The results were not coming so much, but maybe that is what I must accept. Let us say that there were times in the past when I gave 100 per cent on the court, but I was not 100 per cent focused on tennis off the court.”
“People always talk about talented tennis players,” says Perlas. “But you have to combine talent not just with hard work, but with high quality of work. The level of tennis at the top is very high. It takes a lot of self-motivation from the player on and off the court. Fabio does want to be a great player. He may not look like it and people might not think so, but I read it in him. And it is crystal clear.”