Fabio Fognini is one of the most entertaining players on the ATP Tour. When the 33-year-old feels a certain way, positively or negatively, he makes sure everyone within shouting distance knows it. But since last May, when the World No. 17 underwent arthroscopic surgery on both his ankles, Fognini has adopted a new mindset highlighted by calm and patience.
Call this Fabio 2.0.
“I know that sounds really weird from me, those kinds of words,” Fognini joked to ATPTour.com after winning his first-round match at the Antalya Open on Friday.
But the Italian is serious. The nine-time ATP Tour titlist is as hungry as ever for success, especially with the Nitto ATP Finals moving to Turin in his home country, Italy, this year. Fognini knows that coming back from those surgeries to find his best form will not be an easy task. But he is accepting things as they come, even if that has not always been his strong suit.
“When you get surgery, especially at 33, you never know what’s going to happen,” Fognini said, adding that this chapter of his career is like “a new beginning”.
Before Fognini had the surgeries, his left ankle had bothered him for more than three years, and his right ankle was an issue for two years. During that period, the Italian played the best tennis of his life. In June 2019, at 32, he became the oldest player to crack the Top 10 of the FedEx ATP Rankings for the first time since 1973, when the rankings were first established. Fognini climbed as high as World No. 9 in July 2019.
But throughout that time, even when he won his first ATP Masters 1000 title at the 2019 Rolex Monte-Carlo Masters, his ankles were problematic. It was just difficult to tell because of his high level. After losing to Rafael Nadal from a set up in Montreal a few months later, the Spaniard even gave him advice since the lefty had dealt with a similar issue himself.
Fognini, not knowing what would happen if he underwent surgery, was apprehensive at first. Even after going through with it, he wasn’t sure how his body would react. Fognini went 1-4 after the ATP Tour’s return from the COVID-19 suspension last year. The Italian had no expectations, and he admitted that his left foot was only at about 75 per cent, and his right foot was at 50 per cent.
“I was thinking also, ‘What happens if I don’t feel great and it starts to feel bad like before?’ But everybody told me that I had to be really calm, patient,” Fognini said. “I knew that during this period of the clay-court season [I] was not 100 per cent, so I had to accept every result that was coming on my way back.”
For example, Fognini’s first-round win in Antalya against qualifier World No. 311 Michael Vrbensky, by a 6-4, 7-6(4) margin, was a difficult one. Normally, Fognini might have gotten down on himself for his level. But the Italian is being more understanding with himself.
“I know that I have to suffer a lot because it never comes easy. I need these kinds of matches, especially at the beginning of the year. Of course, I was not 100 per cent since my surgeries,” Fognini said. “I’m happy because every match for me now is important, especially if I won a tight match, 6-4, 7-6, a match [against] a guy coming from qualies. He played two matches before today. I have to look at the result, but I also look at myself… I need this feeling again.”
Photo Credit: Antalya Open
Fognini is confident that the work he did during the pre-season will position him well this year. The Italian spent nearly seven weeks to prepare for the new season. During the first two weeks all he did was rehab his feet and generally take care of his body. Then slowly, Fognini added tennis into the equation.
“I know that my tennis, if I ask something of my tennis, it always gives me an answer,” Fognini said. “I know if physically during these kinds of matches like today’s, I start feeling great again, I feel for sure the results are coming.”
That is why Fognini was so excited by a victory that otherwise would have slipped under the radar.
“I need to run, I need to be free of pain. That’s the most beautiful thing of today. I felt a lot of the time great without any pain. Zero,” Fognini said. “I just need time and probably my game will come back again.”
Adding to the physical side of things, Fognini says he feels “mentally fresh”. Staying home during the pandemic has meant spending a lot of time with his family: former WTA star Flavia Pennetta and their two children, three-year-old Federico and one-year-old Farah.
“I was with them for the holidays. I was practising, I was sleeping at home, joking with my baby, so I think that’s the most important thing,” Fognini said. “[But] tennis of course is my job. I feel that I have something to do already because I need to still accomplish [things in tennis].”