As far as Grand Slam achievements go, Fabio Fognini‘s milestone moment slid under the tennis news radar earlier this week at the Australian Open. The 32-year-old Italian, like Roger Federer but not Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, became the 12th player to come back from two sets down at all four Grand Slams.
“I make the Grand Slam,” Fognini said. “I’m in the way of Rafa, Nole and Roger. Different one, but it’s okay.”
The 5’10” Italian came back from two sets down in his first-round match against American Reilly Opelka to win 3-6, 6-7(3), 6-4, 6-3, 7-6(10-5). Fognini has also done it once at Roland Garros, twice at Wimbledon and three times at the US Open. The victory also marked the eighth time he’s come back from two sets down, third among active players behind Federer (10) and Andy Murray (nine).
But despite having a history of memorable comebacks, it’s easy for Fognini to name his favourite come-from-behind effort. “Nadal US Open is the best one, for sure,” he said of his 2015 comeback in the third round in Arthur Ashe Stadium.
The Italian might be somewhat of an expert at coming back from two sets down, but the veteran right-hander hardly has the process mastered. A player needs courage, skill and a little bit of luck to complete the journey back – and even then it still faces long odds.
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“When you are two sets down to zero, it’s in or out, I was more out than in… but I just tried to do my game as best as I can, no mistake,” Fognini said.
“It’s more than one thing for sure. You have to play really focussed because you have zero points free. If you’re missing one, you’re out. You have to be lucky, you have to be these kinds of things in one.
“Just try to play your best tennis and not think about the result.”
It’s much easier said than done, of course. And, like all things in tennis, experience can help. Fognini boasts a 21-13 record in five-set matches overall.
“I’m just happy the way I was fighting until the end. I was serving really well during the whole fifth set. I was playing better, returning a little bit better, especially on his second serve,” he said.
His comeback, unlike some of his past ones, had a finish line this year at the Australian Open. For the second year in a row, the tournament has used a 10-point Match Tie-break at 6-6 in the fifth, which Fognini also used on Wednesday night during his five-set win against Aussie Jordan Thompson to become the first player to win back-to-back fifth-set tie-breaks in Australian Open history.
The tie-break has been a player favourite as the atmosphere and the match bubble up to a crescendo. Roland Garros remains the only Grand Slam that requires players to win by two games in the fifth set.
The US Open has used a fifth-set tie-break since 1970, and last year Wimbledon instituted their Match Tie-break at 12-12 in the fifth set after Kevin Anderson beat John Isner 26-24 in the fifth set of the 2018 Wimbledon semi-finals. Two days later, Anderson was zapped of energy for his Wimbledon final against Djokovic.
“It’s also fairer to the players,” Austria’s Dominic Thiem said. “If you play a few matches, 20-18 in the fifth or something, your chances to play a great tournament at the end, they go to zero almost.”
Thiem didn’t have to use the Match Tie-break during his five-set win against Aussie Alex Bolt to make the third round. But he is thankful the season’s first Grand Slam has instituted the new rule.
“I like it that way because I think if the match ends at six-all in the fifth, the crowd and the players, everybody deserves a Match Tie-break. It’s a great thing. It’s a really good tension in there. It’s great to watch, as well,” Thiem said.
“This dramatic, or this close, it will never get if you don’t play a breaker at the end,” Thiem said.
Russian Karen Khachanov played his first Melbourne Match Tie-break on Thursday night against 2019 Next Gen ATP Finals qualifier Mikael Ymer of Sweden, advancing 6-2, 2-6, 6-4, 3-6, 7-6(8). Khachanov appreciated knowing that the end was near.
“I think it’s fair because if you come to the point that you are six-all in the fifth, of course you can play until 22-20. But you had enough games before to try to finish it,” Khachanov said.
“I think it’s good for the crowd, for the spectators, for us as well. We know that now is the super tie-break. You need to give it all, and whoever does it better wins the match and stays in the tournament.”
Did you know?
The other 10 players who have come back from two sets down at all four Grand Slams are Boris Becker, Aaron Krickstein, Rod Laver, Carlos Moya, David Nalbandian, Yannick Noah, Manuel Orantes, Jared Palmer, Tommy Robredo and Fernando Verdasco.