The principality of Monte Carlo has more millionaires and billionaires per capita than any country in the world. It’s a tax haven for some of the rich and famous in tennis, like Novak Djokovic. The Serbian superstar enjoys a home-court advantage there and twice before (2013 and 2015) won the Rolex Monte Carlo Masters. But, in its most topsy-turvy tournament ever, neither Djokovic nor 11-time champion Rafael Nadal made the final. Instead, an aging Italian and a journeyman Serb stole the show.
How did these underdogs turn the tables on Djokovic, Nadal and the other favourites? Let’s review their improbable runs and what else we learned from the first tournament of the European clay-court season.
Fabio can be fabulous
For more than a decade, Fabio Fognini has exasperated his fervent fanbase and mystified tennis cognoscenti. The immensely talented but underachieving Italian can be ferociously competitive or inexplicably apathetic, tactically clever or self-destructive, brilliant or abysmal. Perhaps at Monte Carlo, the 31-year-old Fognini was inspired by late-bloomers like Stan Wawrinka, John Isner and Kevin Anderson, or by his wife Flavia Pennetta, who won her only major, the 2015 US Open, at 33.
Although he’s only 5’10”, Fognini boasted muscle as well as hustle. In his stunning 6-4, 6-2 semifinal victory over No. 2 Nadal, the hard-hitting Italian blasted 21 winners, compared to only 10 for Nadal. The most consequential and sensational was a backhand crosscourt winner to break Nadal’s serve in the opening game of the second set. But it wasn’t until the unpredictable Fognini broke again for a 3-0 lead that the nervous Flavia stopped biting her fingernails.
Court position proved as critical as power as Fognini captured his first Masters and biggest career title. He struck the ball two feet earlier on average, just inside the baseline, this year at Monte Carlo compared to last year, smartly attacking Nadal rather than engaging in long, exhausting rallies. “'I have the game to play against him. I played an incredible match,” said Fognini afterwards.
Even so, he conceded, “If you told me at the beginning of the week, ‘See you on Sunday [for the final],’ I would laugh in your face.”
Rafael Nadal is not invincible on clay in best-of-three-set matches
Fognini had beaten Nadal twice before on clay. He could draw confidence from these matches, especially his 2015 win in Rio de Janeiro, where he also, amazingly, broke Nadal’s serve four times in one set.
At Monte Carlo, though, Nadal misfired so frequently on his normally terrific forehand that he called the loss “one of my worst matches in 14 years.” He added that it was “difficult to find an explanation” for his poor performance on his favourite clay surface. Before the upset, Nadal had won 18 straight matches and 21 straight sets at Monte Carlo.
Beating Nadal in a best-of-three-set match on clay is one thing. But doing it in a best-of-five-set match at the French Open remains the ultimate challenge in tennis. There, the King of Clay has grabbed a record 11 titles and lost only three times.
We’re still waiting for the Next Gen
It’s incredible but true: for the first time in tennis history, no active male player under age 30 has won a Grand Slam title. During this Big 3-dominated decade, we’ve had a few purported Next Gens, but none panned out. Two current Next Gen members, No. 3 Alexander Zverev and No. 8 Stefanos Tsitsipas, rank in the top 10. Zverev eliminated another rising star, 18-year-old Felix Auger-Aliassime, 6-1, 6-4, in the first round. Against Fognini, the 6’6” German hit his groundstrokes timidly and aimlessly, and the much-smaller Italian overpowered him 7-6, 6-1. The disappointing Zverev hasn’t defeated a top-25 opponent this year.
Tsitsipas was edged 6-2, 1-6, 6-4 by another Next-Genner, 14th-ranked Daniil Medvedev. Good Friday turned out to be an extremely good Friday for the 23-year-old Medevedev, who upset a lethargic, error-prone Djokovic 6-3, 4-6, 6-2. Medvedev called for the trainer three times and looked extremely fatigued late in the deciding set, but he just kept fighting and overcame a love-30 deficit in the last game. The gruelling match took a toll, though, and he faded badly in the semifinals, losing 12 of the last 15 games and succumbing 7-6, 6-1 to giant-killer Dusan Lajovic.
Dusan Lajovic lasted longer than a cup of coffee
The unheralded 28-year-old Serb, who owns a coffee shop in Belgrade called Laboratorije Kafe, has lost more tour-level career matches than he’s won. That means more often than not Lajovic loses in the first round of tournaments.
But all that changed at the scenic Monte Carlo Country Club that overlooks the azure Mediterranean Sea. There, 48th-ranked Lajovic broke through with a vengeance, knocking out Malek Jaziri, David Goffin, Dominic Thiem, Lorenzo Sonego and Medvedev — all in straight sets! — to record five straight tour-level victories for the first time in his career. The most impressive win, a 6-3, 6-3 rout of No. 5 Thiem, marked his first over a top-five opponent.
“I didn’t expect this, especially not in two sets against a player like Dominic,” said Lajovic. “This was for sure the best match in my life. I produced some great tennis from the beginning until the end.”
His Cinderella run ended abruptly in the final. Lajovic missed too many routine shots, the most costly an easy high forehand volley with Fognini leading 3-2, 30-all in the second set. Fognini’s shot power and variety exposed and exploited Lajovic’s weak one-handed backhand in the decisive 6-4, 6-2 victory. “He definitely has the game for [the] top 10,” Lajovic rightly said about Fognini, who rose to No. 12. “We all know tennis is not just tennis, it’s mental most of the time. So it depends on him.”
At this Monte Carlo, it also depended on Lajovic. And the moral of his upbeat story is that perseverance pays off in the long run and underdogs always have a chance.
One tournament can turn a season around
Much like Thiem, whose Indian Wells title reversed a horrendous start this year, the flailing Fognini was mired in a deep slump entering Monte Carlo. The nine-time tour-level titlist scored just one win in his previous eight matches, had no wins over a top-50 player, and lost all his four matches on clay this year.
Though his career was less distinguished than Fognini’s, Lajovic arrived at the principality with a mediocre 6-9 record in 2019. Despite a painful toe blister, the 28-year-old Serb won five matches to make his first tour final.
One match can turn a tournament around
Often a Houdini-like escape from near-defeat in an early round ignites a player to win the entire tournament. Fognini trailed Andrey Rublev by a set and faced five break points for 1-5 in the second set of his opening-round match. But he doggedly battled back and pulled out a stunning 4-6, 7-5, 6-4 victory.
Buoyed by that comeback, Fognini again summoned his mental and physical toughness against Borna Coric, a young gun ranked No. 13. Trailing the Croat 6-1, 2-0, Fognini put on a clinical, blending power with touch, to rebound and prevail 1-6, 6-3, 6-2.
A topnotch coach can turn a player’s career around
Lajovic credits Jose Perlas, his coach for the past two-and-a-half years, for much of his improvement. The highly regarded Perlas has worked with former French Open champions Carlos Moya, Albert Costa and Juan Carlos Ferrero, French Open finalist Guillermo Coria as well as Nicolas Almagro, Fognini and Lajovic’s countryman Janko Tipsarevic. Perlas also captained Spain’s Davis Cup team.
Perlas helped salvage Lajovic’s ebbing career by instilling confidence. Lajovic, after undergoing hernia surgery in November 2017, struggled to regain his form, losing 10 of his next 11 matches.
“This was the key change to finally work on the right things in my tennis and to finally believe that I can do this,” Lajovic told ATP Tennis Radio. “Obviously if he believes that I can do it, I have to believe it myself and I started believing. So that’s the biggest change I would say in my game.”
Novak’s slump continues
It’s more slump than crisis, but not reaching a semifinal since capturing the Australian Open in January should concern Novak Djokovic. At Monte Carlo, he struggled to overcome relentlessly consistent Philipp Kohlschreiber 6-3, 4-6, 6-4 but then outclassed 21-year-old American Taylor Fritz 6-3, 6-0.
Medvedev’s change of pace tactics and a swirling wind disrupted Djokovic’s highly grooved game and thoroughly frustrated him during his 6-3, 4-6, 6-2 loss to the 6’6” Russian. He didn’t serve with his usual power and committed a whopping 47 unforced errors.
“It’s tough to find rhythm and he doesn’t give you much rhythm. He was very patient and played well tactically,” said Djokovic.
“My tactic was to try to make less mistakes than him and it worked well in the first set,” Medvedev told the crowd in French. “He did not play very well, made a lot of mistakes and I took advantage of that. Novak raised his level of play in the second set. I tried to match it, but I couldn’t. In the third set, I managed to play the angles. That’s what happens when you start losing points, you start playing the angles. My brain knows it.”
It’s too soon to panic for the 15-time major champion. Djokovic has his eyes on the prize, Roland Garros. He has five weeks to regain the grooved strokes and trademark fire that produced titles at the last three Grand Slam events. Considering that he’s defeated Nadal seven times on clay, a second “Djoker Slam” would hardly be surprising.
The Americans aren’t coming
No American has won the French Open since Andre Agassi in 1999, and they have become so resigned to mediocrity on slow clay that only one, Taylor Fritz, even entered Monte Carlo.
The 21-year-old Fritz, not known for his clay play, impressively upset Jo-Wilfried Tsonga 6-4, 2-0, retired, and then scored an even bigger 6-4, 6-2 win over tenacious Diego Schwartzman, a quarterfinalist at the 2018 French Open.
“Americans don’t like to play the European clay circuit that long,” explained Tennis Channel analyst and former doubles standout Mark Knowles. “But Taylor Fritz, who is coached by David Nainkin and Paul Annacone, always does the right thing.”
On the plus side, five Americans showed enough ambition to enter the Barcelona Open the following week.
Bill Bradley, a former NBA standout and U.S. senator from New Jersey, once said that fans rooting against you can’t hurt you, but fans rooting for you can definitely help you.
That axiom proved true when shouts of “Fabio, Fabio, Fabio” sparked the volatile Fognini during his semifinal upset over Nadal, often a crowd favourite on the French Riviera.
After the final, Fognini acknowledged his many Italian supporters who drove along the Mediterranean coast across the border to cheer for him. “I was born in San Remo, and I was practising here when I was young. I know really well this tennis club,” Fognini said. “My friends and family are happy now, because I have my name on this tournament that it’s something that when I was really young I was dreaming about.”
The “Big 3” are slipping at Masters tournaments
Fognini is the eighth player to win his first Masters 1000 title over the past 17 events at the elite level. That attests to the increasing depth on the ATP Tour. In the 92 ATP Masters 1000 events prior to 2017 Rome, only eight players won their first Masters 1000 crown.
That newfound depth has chipped away at the domination of the “Big 3.” Rafael Nadal (22), Novak Djokovic (29), and Roger Federer (13) accounted for 64 titles in those 92 earlier Masters events (70 percent), but they captured just seven of the past 17 events (41 per cent). The lacklustre quality of play displayed by two non-top 10 players in the Monte Carlo final prompted a comment by Timothy Hudson on the ATP website. Likely expressing the view of many sports fans, he wrote: “What a boring final. No great players in it.”
Unfortunately, it may take a few years before anyone approaches the greatness of tennis giants Federer, Nadal and Djokovic.