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Sunday, May 29, 2011
Fognini overcomes array of antics

By Greg Garber
ESPN.com

PARIS -- They were standing at Court Suzanne Lenglen, vigorously applauding, screaming their congratulations, and -- after 4 hours, 22 minutes of zany, sometimes dark comedy -- all Fabio Fognini could do was shrug and extend his arms, palms up.

Fabio. The name says it all. It was the moment of his tennis life, and his response was reminiscent of Michael Jordan's famous, hey-what-can-I-say moment after he nailed his sixth 3-pointer in a half against Portland in the 1992 NBA finals.

The 24-year-old Italian, if truth be told, is a bit of a drama queen. He has a pleasingly laconic style; he is a shot-maker of legendary proportion. He has never won a singles title, but his antic gestures are worthy of a trophy. On Sunday, Fognini surpassed himself.

Playing Spain's Albert Montanes, Fognini's legs went out from under him in the 14th game of the fifth set, and this morphed from the longest match of the main draw to a savory epic of sorts. Fognini:

• Survived five match points.

• Serving flat-footed, was called for five foot faults -- in a single game.

• Was credited (if that is the word) with 103 unforced errors.

Yet, somehow, Fognini won, 4-6, 6-4, 3-6, 6-3, 11-9. It was appropriate that Fognini won 189 points and Montanes 188.

Later, when Fognini walked into the press room, there was scattered applause. Always in character, he groaned when he sat down and still seemed to be breathing heavily.

Fabio Fognini
Fabio Fognini and histrionics go hand-in-hand, but on this day, his courageous effort took center stage.

"The match was really complicated," Fognini said. "Montanes is a really good player. In the end, everything happen."

There could be no more unlikely quarterfinalist than Fognini, whose best previous effort in a major was the third round. Previously, he had won only six Grand Slam singles matches (in 14 events), and his record coming into the tournament was an unappealing 8-14.

His reward? He will now play the winner of the Novak Djokovic-Richard Gasquet clash and be given little chance to win. That's if he plays at all. Fognini said he strained a muscle in his left leg, which caused him a great deal of pain, but wasn't sure if he would recover in time to play Tuesday.

"That's a good question," he said, shrugging again. "I have to do some examinations with doctor. I really don't know what will happen."

In retrospect, it's quite possible Montanes suffered a brain cramp as powerful as anything Fognini felt. After all, Montanes, 30, has been around forever. This is his 10th appearance at Roland Garros, and he failed to capitalize on Fognini's perilous condition. When the pace of Fognini's serve tailed off late in the match, Montanes was still receiving serve from two meters behind the baseline.

Montanes was up a break in the fourth and contrived to lose the set. He was up 4-1 in the fifth and, with an opponent who was having difficulty moving, continued to hit the majority of balls in Fognini's general direction. There were few angled shots and ruthless drop shots that we've seen from some competitors when they smell blood.

The score was 6-7 and Fognini had just missed a first serve at 15-30, when he bent over in pain. Chair umpire Louise Engzell came down to the court and asked Fognini if he had an injury. Knowing that a cramp is not deemed an official injury -- and therefore not a legitimate reason to call for the trainer in midgame -- Fognini said yes. After the trainer rubbed down his leg, Fognini returned to the match.

It's a fine line between an injury and a cramp. Even on court, Fognini did not deny that he was cramping in addition to his claimed injury. The crowd, sensing that he was pulling a fast one on the chair umpire, responded with whistling and jeers.

Afterward, there was a broad discussion of the controversy, and there was a general feeling that the chair umpire had been too lenient and should have assessed Fognini a time violation.

"First of all, Montanes has to be kicking himself," said ESPN analyst Brad Gilbert, the former coach of Andre Agassi and Andy Roddick. "He was up 5-2 in the fifth, he had five match points and the other guy was barely able to move."

"Whether he said it was his leg but he really was cramping, who knows? It's a grey area, a tough thing. But he was doing what was in the rules. When you're a hurting tennis player, you got to do whatever you can to hang in there."

Did Fognini give any thought to retiring?

"No," Fognini said emphatically. "He can do nothing, so I just put the ball in the court."

Montanes himself did not want to judge Fognini, saying graciously, "I congratulate him."

And so, Montanes would run all over the place, huffing and puffing and Fognini would sort of jog at half-speed and hit flat-footed shots -- some for winners. Even with all those foot-faults, Montanes couldn't put him away.

The match concluded when Fognini hit an artful backhand down the line that was curving away from Montanes. Montanes' feeble forehand found the net, and Fognini walked, very slowly, to the net, letting the applause wash over him.

Fognini was asked if he thought this was his lifetime achievement, in terms of drama.

"I think this is not a drama," he said. "I'm in the quarterfinal. I just repeat another time, I'm really happy."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Ravi Ubha contributed to this report.