Imploring the Heavens

Hamburg, Final

(12) Fognini d. (Q) Delbonis, 4/6 7/6 6/2

Fabio Fognini has won Hamburg’s German Tennis Championships, his second tournament victory in as many weeks, proving that anything can become habitual once you develop the knack for it. Speaking of which, Fognini has now won more clay court matches this season than anyone besides Rafael Nadal – all clay court achievements come affixed with a decal reading ‘besides Rafael Nadal’ – and has entered the top twenty for the first time. Success changes some, but it’s hard to see how it will affect a man who always behaved as though his lack of titles was merely because he hadn’t gotten around to it yet. Fognini Hamburg 2013 -4Nonetheless, in the final he only narrowly defeated Federico Delbonis, the young Argentine qualifier who’d beaten Tommy Robredo, Fernando Verdasco and Roger Federer en route, and who three times came within a point of stopping Fognini’s title-spree at one.

Whereas last week’s Stuttgart final was quite straightforward – startlingly so given the personnel involved, involving merely a one set recovery against the German favourite – the Hamburg decider was closer to what one might expect of a Fognini match. There was drama in spades. The Italian had been outplayed for the best part of two sets, by a qualifier whose miraculous focus and determination had hardly wavered all week. Fognini, by contrast, was peevish and typically histrionic. Racquets were hurled. The heavens were implored. Breaks of serve were gifted carelessly and re-gifted whimsically. Championship points arrived. Worryingly, they arrived on Delbonis’s serve, which had troubled his opponents all week. At 6-5 in the second set tiebreaker the Argentine served wide to Fognini’s backhand, and moved in behind it. The return was meek, and the Italian was hopelessly stranded off the court. Delbonis, with unspoiled acreage to hit into, instead knifed his volley into the net. I suspect that one will stay with him.

Pressure is a funny thing, although to find it really funny you probably had to have something against Delbonis personally. The players swapped ends, and Delbonis earned another match point a few points later, again on serve. Forehand wide. Fognini took the set two points later, and the match changed completely. Suddenly Delbonis looked like a young man playing in his first tour final, in Hamburg’s grand Rothenbaum stadium. He looked like a guy who’d watched the most important shots of his life miss. Fognini, meanwhile, looked like a man who wins these things every week, except when he served for the title the first time, and was alarmed to discover that Delbonis wasn’t quite done yet. Fognini also fell over. Still, he had another break in hand, but it wasn’t necessary. He broke again for the title, his second in eight days. Last week he was given a Mercedes. This week he got a fancy desk fan.

Aside from his matinee-idol looks, Fognini’s substantial legend has always coalesced around his status as a profligate wastrel. We may agonise on the behalf of other title-less players – Julien Benneteau’s sensitive face invites sympathy – but I can’t recall that anyone worried overly on Fognini’s behalf. His supporters figured he hadn’t yet won a title because he didn’t care to, but probably would once the haywire clockwork in his brain sorted itself out. His detractors, meanwhile, held that he didn’t win titles because he lacked discipline, which in these conservative times is held to be a sin, and not merely a venial one. It turns out that wasting exceptional talent is far worse than simply lacking it in the first place. I suppose we knew that already.

Now that he is winning titles, the clarion call has rung out to the effect that Fognini has finally vindicated his talent, and therefore our expectations. It’s a tedious fanfare, to be sure, and lent too much resonance by the hollow assumption that the realisation of his talents is more our business than his. Mercurial players like Fognini are always large and inviting targets for plodding moralisers, of which tennis fandom boasts more than its share. There is a whole subset of punditry devoted to excoriating those men and women who’ve been adjudged to have squandered their gifts, with special viciousness reserved for any who make the waste public and extravagant. Fognini is by no means the most notorious example. If anything he keeps to himself, and for off-court flamboyance yields pride of place to, say, Marat Safin and Mark Philippoussis, both of whom gave the unforgiveable impression during their tennis careers that there was more to life than thwacking tennis balls. The puritanical tut-tutting that accompanied their lean patches and long declines was predictably metronomic, and all the more oppressive for it.

But sometimes young men and women who’ve filled their youths with nothing more than tennis discover it’s not filling enough once life expands into adulthood. That’s their business. We can speculate why a player hasn’t fulfilled his or her promise – Federer offered a startlingly thorough critique of Xavier Malisse in Madrid a few years ago – but to be personally offended by it suggests a shirking of perspective. It also reflects a muddled and sentimental view of talent that I’d be tempted to call medieval if it wasn’t so modern. To me Fognini has often seemed like a throwback to an earlier era, when sporadic brilliance wasn’t considered a shortcoming, but a treat. It is no stretch at all to picture him in bygone days, swanning about on the burnt Sienna courts of the Mediterranean coast, broken hearts and racquets littering in his wake. Fittingly, next week he’s in Umag: a perfect venue for title number three.

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