For the third match in a row Andy Murray was pitted against an opponent who, if you listened to all the hype and allowed your imagination to take a further flight of fancy, was going to walk on to Centre Court with a tennis ball painted red for a nose, a giant foam racket and a super-soaker full of Robinson’s Barley Water.
But the gruff Scottish ringmaster wasn’t having any of that nonsense in his arena. He wasn’t having Italy’s Fabio Fognini sending any more whizz-bang forehand winners past his aching legs. He wasn’t having this threat to his crown.
In two hours and 39 minutes Murray triumphed 6-2, 4-6, 6-1, 7-5. After winning five games in a row, and saving five set points, the champ said: “That was a tense match. It’s difficult playing a guy who has all the shots. He can generate power from very short swings and it was difficult to see when he was going to hit the ball big.”
Murray acknowledged he hadn’t been at his best. “I don’t think I moved as well as in my previous matches,” he added. “But I’ve made it into the second week. Anything can happen now.”
Like Alexander Bublik and like Dustin Brown, Fabio Fognini was heavily billed as an entertainer. A flair player, a shot-maker, maybe even a tweenie-favouring trickster. The score between these two, born just nine days apart, before last night was three matches apiece, all of them played on clay, the most recent a blazing victory for Fognini in Rome in May.
Quite apart from his flamboyance, the noises-off in a Fognini match seem to have their own devotees. Indeed, this bunch probably feel short-changed if there aren’t as many operatic gestures, passionate debates with his box and moments teetering on the brink of chaos as there are drop shots. “What’s it all about, Fabio?” he was once asked. “It’s Italian comedy,” he replied.
Now, slapstick originated in Italy, Commedia dell’arte is an ancient tradition and Federico Fellini pushed the boundaries of movie-making with his freak circus extravaganzas. But if you’ve ever been stuck in a Rimini hotel room with local TV you’ll have been struck by a terrible thought: “It’s a Knockout lives!”
For Fognini to knock out Murray his hand skills were going to have to be at their best. The cleverest disguises, the whippiest of swings. And something else entertainers struggle with: consistency. Could he do all of this, not on clay or even circus sawdust, but grass?
He was slow to show anything, content to strut around, and Murray banged a couple of aces first game. Then we got glimpses of the whippiness – Fognini really does zing that forehand. Murray, though, broke him in the sixth game, helped by a ball which whirred a few times on top of the net, falling his way.
Fognini was proving to be a challenge, all right. When he found the corners with his walloping drives, Murray would drag his feet and waggle his racket at his box – the time-honoured tics. Fognini then had a shocker of a service game – three double faults – and the first set was Murray’s after 29 minutes.
Up to this point Fognini had only tried his drop shot twice. He didn’t want to get the Scot in a long rally, invariably losing them. But in the opening game of the second set Murray twice double-faulted and Fognini had a break – the first time he’d lost his serve in the tournament.
Where was the comedy? The crowd thought they’d provide some when Fognini thwacked a stray ball and they all went “Wooo!” Fognini tried another drop shot but Murray was equal to it. Fognini thumped too long to lose his serve and threw down his racket. “Wooo!” went the crowd as a warning was issued.
But Murray’s serve wasn’t entirely clicking and when Fognini put his shots away they were gone for good. He broke Murray again. Now we were seeing the drop shot, inviting Murray to almost collide with the umpire’s chair two points in a row. Now Murray could get next to nothing out of his opponent’s serve. A disgustingly non-existent bounce gave Fognini three set points and he levelled the match.
The return of Italian style to Centre probably had older tennis fans harking back to the 1970s when Adriano Panatta encouraged all of London’s spaghetti-house waiters to request the afternoon off so they could drum up some football-fan fervour in the stands. Fognini had his supporters and they were seeing their man make more and more of those lunging, flashing forehands, getting faster every time.
Fourth game, third set, though, Murray gained the upper hand with a break, Fognini lapsing back into his earlier moodiness and at 4-1 down, Murray’s serve booming, Fognini requested some physio on his left ankle and a time-out. Play resumed with another Murray break and the set was soon his.
It was a strange match. Fognini was hitting many more winners than Murray. There weren’t as many tricks from him as we’d anticipated, or as many dramatic blow-ups. He was a fairly sullen fellow but Murray can do sullen better than just about anyone.
Then came an outburst. A point deducted from Fognini for a visible obscenity. He protested and the Italian fans tried to lift their man. “Fabio! Fabio!” they chanted. It worked. Murray hit another slump and Fognini broke him.
The match looked like it was going all the way but Murray, from somewhere, saved himself when not being especially stunning, as champions so often do. Who next for him? Coco the Clown? Krusty the Clown? No because next week is second week, serious week and it will be Frenchman Benoit Paire. As Elvis Costello once sang, clowntime is over.