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Italian magician: The great Fognini

By Clair Maciel
Sunday, September 06, 2015

Some might call Fabio Fognini a giant-slayer, a magician on court, or maybe even lucky. He’s the man who fired the shot – or in this particular case, the barrage of shots – heard ‘round the world. Late in his third-round match Friday, the No. 32 seed unveiled his best magic trick to date. At the stroke of midnight, the Italian unleashed a brand of tennis that allowed him to overcome a two-set-and-a-break deficit to topple No. 8 seed and 14-time Grand Slam champion Rafael Nadal, leaving the Spaniard with a Slam-less season for the first time in 10 years.

The final three sets of their match showcased back-to-back highlight worthy rallies in which both Fognini and Nadal raised their games, much to the delight of the diehard tennis fans who stayed up late to see the match through. Never before has an opponent hit the ball with such force and consistency that Nadal had no answer. But all credit to Fognini, who withstood the the two-time US Open champion's fire and lit up the court with an astonishing 70 winners. There was simply no way to stop the Fognini freight train that blew through Arthur Ashe Stadium late Friday night. 

“He played great,” Nadal said after the match. “It was not a match that I lost, even if I had opportunities. It’s a match that he won. He played better than me. I didn’t play bad at all. I played a normal match, but not enough.”

The win marked the third time Fognini has defeated Nadal this year, the first two coming in Rio de Janeiro and Barcelona. As he had learned in those victories, he needed to use his full arsenal of shots in order to defeat the former champ on this big stage. If that meant going for broke and teeing off on the ball during every rally, so be it. The Italian known for his feisty on-court personality now had an electric game to match.

“Well, with Rafa you have to try that, you have to risk,” Fognini said of his aggressive, no-holds-barred play. “You have to attack him when you have the chance. He is one of the best passing players in the world, if not the best. It's not easy. Right now I can't tell you something more because it was something incredible that I did, I think. It is a really special win over the No. 1 on clay, and he won two times here.”

Prior to the US Open, Fognini’s 2015 record on hard courts was a dismal 0-7, and that doesn't include three Hopman Cup losses prior to the Australian Open. Overall, he had lost nine consecutive matches on asphalt. But whether it was the magic and electricity of New York, or just a new mindset for the Italian, something changed when he arrived here. The losing streak was snapped in his first-round win over Steve Johnson and continues now to his best-ever US Open result.

Fognini attributes the change of fortune to being mentally stronger now that he has played well in the late stages of recent tournaments, particularly at Hamburg, where he finished runner-up behind Nadal. And the success he has experienced in doubles, starting with his first Australian Open title with Simone Bolelli this year, certainly played a part in his success at the net against Nadal on Friday – he won 39 of 54 net points.

“I start the season really bad at the beginning in Australia,” Fognini said of his rocky start to 2015. “I play well on clay on the second month of the year. I play really bad another time in Indian Wells and Miami. But, you know, I was saying the first day that I came here, after playing again really good on clay with the final against Rafa and two quarterfinals, I was feeling really good. I have been playing really well, feeling on court really well.”

Now, Fognini can bask in the victory of reaching the fourth round for the first time at the US Open, becoming the first Italian to reach this stage since Davide Sanguinetti accomplished the feat 10 years ago. The victory also marked another milestone for Fognini, as it took him 18 tries before finally notching his first career win against a Top 10 opponent on a hard court. The question now turns to whether or he can repeat Friday's magical performance when he meets No. 18 seed Feliciano Lopez Sunday in the fourth round, or whether he performs a disappearing act.