Fabio Fognini, Rafael Nadal, and the exceptional moment

Before those of us who write about sports made the decision (or were granted the opportunity) to write about sports, we were fans first.

Whether as a writer or a fan, anyone who follows sports — for pleasure or for a living — remembers where s/he was when something truly remarkable happened.

Truly remarkable. Epic. Massive. 

Words and phrases get tossed around in so many columns, game stories, and news analysis articles that their impact can (and does) lose force. Cover a sport or a tournament long enough, and you’re going to run into certain limitations at some point.

Writers want to create something special, something to be remembered by, but they don’t always get the chance. Many matches don’t allow for unique phrasings or sharply resonant word-pictures. A lot of what we see in sports — tennis, yes, but everything else under the sun as well — is ordinary. Many matches acquire familiar patterns. So what if a favorite or a legend of the game trails by a set or even two? He’ll win in the end, we say.

Almost all of the time, “we” are right.

Then, however, arrives the moment when “we” — the people who have seen a given movie so many times on a tennis court or in some other theater of athletics — are wrong.

That’s the kind of moment which sticks in the mind’s eye. It enables us to remember where we were when a thunderbolt struck and shattered our sense of the ordinary. When something unprecedented in a relatively long history occurs, and that unprecedented event affects one of the most iconic sports figures of our time, we — fans or writers, it doesn’t matter — take notice.

So it was on a Friday night-turned-Saturday morning in New York, on the first weekend of September. In a classic edition of “Late Night At The U.S. Open” — the first at the new-look Arthur Ashe Stadium (not the finished product, but a stadium with a different and more theatrical environment thanks to the construction of the initial framework of a roof) — tennis witnessed something it had never seen before, on multiple fronts. “Never” is a very long time, but “never” was demolished by Fabio Fognini in the face of a man he has come to relish playing against.

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On 151 previous occasions, Rafael Nadal Parera had taken a two-set lead in a major-tournament match. On 151 previous occasions, Nadal won.

This is a man who began playing the U.S. Open in 2003 as a teenager, and when he — hardly a hardcourt natural — played a five-set match against a no-name player called Ivo Heuberger in the first round of the 2004 U.S. Open, it only stood to reason that Nadal, being most at home on clay, would have to play a few five-setters in New York if he was ever going to win this tournament in the future.

Yet, Nadal powered his way to the 2010 U.S. Open championships without needing a fifth set in any of his seven matches. Nadal turned in one of the most dominant and transcendent two-week performances in the history of Open Era men’s tennis. In 2013, having already won Canada and Cincinnati, Nadal then stormed through New York to win the nearly impossible North American summer triple. He did not need a fifth set in that U.S. Open, either. He was that good, that much of a quick study, that able to adjust his game to suit the needs of a surface and its collective situation.

It wasn’t until Friday night (or more precisely, Saturday morning), 11 long years after that match with Heuberger, that Nadal needed to play another fifth set in a U.S. Open match. He didn’t WANT to, but he did NEED to… when Fognini, one of tennis’s most gifted yet underperforming players, came back from a two-set deficit to win the next two stanzas.

The idea of Nadal losing a two-set lead isn’t entirely preposterous. Roger Federer almost did it at Wimbledon in 2008. The idea of Novak Djokovic managing to do this at some point along the line also doesn’t seem far-fetched. If either of those guys beat Nadal after trailing by a couple of sets, you could simply say, “Well, he’s Federer/Djokovic. Of course he could do such a thing.”

One of the last men you’d ever mention as a possible two-sets-to-love escape artist against Nadal is Fabio Fognini, whom we wrote about last year. Fognini can look like the best player in the world for stretches of a few games — his ballstriking, when finely polished and calibrated, is that good. Yet, tennis is littered wth players who can sustain great play for no more than a few games. Spectacular talent emerges in brief glimpses, instead of remaining on display at a steady, bright burn and regularly becoming more intense in the moments which matter the most.

The flame of Fognini’s talent has almost always flickered and has been easy to snuff out. The Italian bears a light which doesn’t shine for long. After one unplayable set when he’s making every shot in sight, Fognini will then descend to the depths of the ordinary, if not the indifferent. On a tennis tour with many players who have created a large, yawning canyon between their very best and worst selves, Fognini is the foremost example of that particular specimen.

Even though he defeated Nadal on clay at two earlier points this season, and even though he had bullied Rafa in the third and fourth sets of this third-round match, the idea that Fognini could become the first man in 152 major-tournament matches to complete a two-set comeback versus Nadal remained improbable. (It was no longer preposterous entering the fifth set, but improbable? Yes.)

What’s more is that when the final set unfolded, Fognini repeatedly struggled with the unique pressure of playing with a lead. It’s true that when he lost serve after breaking for a 2-1 lead, Nadal earned a 2-2 tie with excellent shotmaking. The same was true later, when Rafa played some truly astounding points to break for 4-4. However, at 3-2 in the fifth, Fognini flatly cracked. From a position of strength, he lost focus and donated a break to Nadal. According to disposition, history and psychology, everything anyone knew about these two players as competitors pointed to Nadal being able to overtake Fognini just before the finish line.

Again, it’s not just that Nadal was 151-0 after leading by two sets at a major; it was that Fognini has not been known for finishing things. The Italian had never previously reached the fourth round at the U.S. Open — yes, with his level of shotmaking capacity, he couldn’t get through the first week in New York at any prior point in his maddening, volcanic, sometimes ugly, and generally depressing journey through his sport.

THIS was the guy who was going to make history and become the first major-tournament comeback artist against a 14-time major champion?

THIS was the guy who was going to watch his serve get broken three straight times by Nadal in the final set of this match… only to break back in the Spaniard’s next three service games and then serve out the match at 5-4?

It defies all description. It flies in the face of all logic. It is impossible to adequately explain.

It happened.

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This match calls to mind the memory of Jo-Wilfried Tsonga coming back from a two-set deficit to stun Roger Federer in the 2011 Wimbledon quarterfinals.

Much as Nadal won each of his first 151 major-tournament matches when leading by two sets, Federer had won each of his first 178 matches in the same position. In terms of both their ability to minimize five-set matches in the first place, but also their ability to close the sale when gaining an advantage, Federer and Nadal have set themselves apart from both their peers and predecessors in the long and storied history of tennis. That Federer never slipped off the ledge until that moment in 2011 speaks to the breathtaking high-level consistency of his career. The fact that Tsonga — like Fognini, a mercurial and volatile player with a quintessential “box-of-chocolates” identity (you never know what you’re going to get) — was the man to stop Federer’s uninterrupted run made that particular match impossible to forget.

Now, the same thing has happened to Nadal, and it’s why disbelief is coursing through my cranial regions as I push out a series of paragraphs and sentences I never, ever expected to write.

What was true four years ago of Federer is every bit as true now of Nadal: Being able to hold off the many competitors who have chased him for so long, and being able to so relentlessly perform in moments of great stress, represent the core virtues of a champion at the highest level. What also embodies a historically great athlete, however, is not just the presence of feats accomplished, but the absence of stumbles and slip-ups.

The absence of a loss from a position of strength is such a central source of the shock value attached to “Tsonga d. Federer” in 2011. That same absence of past losses with two-set leads at majors makes “Fognini d. Nadal” in 2015 almost as surprising. Only the reality of Fognini’s other wins over Nadal this year diminishes the thundrous quality of this occurrence. Everything else, though, magnifies this most exceptional moment, a night when something which had happened 151 consecutive times no longer came to pass. Something which had not happened in 12 years of major-tournament competition for Rafael Nadal finally happened.

We — as writers or fans — always remember where we were when something truly extraordinary happens in sports.

We will remember where we were when Fabio Fognini, blessed with perseverance for one of the few times in his career, turned Rafael Nadal’s clean sheet into a record of 151-1 when leading by two sets at a major tennis tournament.

About Matt Zemek

Matt Zemek is the managing editor of The Student Section, covering college football and basketball with associate editors Terry Johnson and Bart Doan. Mr. Zemek is the editor of Crossover Chronicles, covering the NBA. He is also Bloguin's lead tennis writer, covering the major tournaments. He contributes to other Bloguin sites, such as The AP Party.

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