It’s been a lopsided rivalry, really. Rafael Nadal boasts a 12-4 advantage in ATP Head2Heads against Fabio Fognini dating back to 2013. No, it’s not Borg-McEnroe or Sampras-Agassi. It’s not Fedal. But there’s something to this Spanish-Italian match-up that makes it unlike any other.
Perhaps it was their dust-up during the Hamburg final in 2015, when Nadal snapped a two-match skid against Fognini, prevailing 7-5, 7-5. Courtside microphones picked up Fognini, who amassed 60 unforced errors that afternoon, airing out his frustration at his opponent.
Fognini would famously avenge the loss later that same year at Flushing Meadows. Playing some of the most aggressive tennis of his career, the flamboyant and fiery Italian roared back from two sets down in the third round to pull off one of the most stunning upsets in US Open history, winning 3-6, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3, 6-4. The match, which lingered until 1:30 a.m., featured some dazzling shot-making, including 70 winners from the victor.
The loss was a significant one for Nadal, then No. 8 in the FedEx ATP Rankings. It officially ended the Mallorcan’s streak of winning at least one Grand Slam title a year for 10 consecutive years. It remains his only loss after taking a two-sets-to-love lead.
Fognini had never beaten a Top 10 player on a hard court in 17 previous attempts.
“[It] was something incredible that I did today,” Fognini told reporters afterward. “With Rafa, you have to risk. You have to attack him when you have the chance.”
That storyline continues in 2021. Fognini and Nadal, now 33 and 34, respectively, will face off for a 17th time on Monday in the fourth round at the Australian Open. Despite the history, both players insist there’s no ill will between them.
“The past is the past,” said 16th seed Fognini, who impressed with a 6-4, 6-3, 6-4 victory over home favourite and No. 21 seed Alex de Minaur in the third round. “The future is going to be the future.”
“I have a very good relationship with him,” said the second seed Nadal, who despite some lower back tightness is looking sharp in his quest for a record 21st Grand Slam singles title. “Of course, we had our story on court a couple of years ago, but no problem at all after that. I always try to have a good relationship with everybody in the locker room. Life is much happier like this, no?
“With Fabio, I never had a big problem. Just on court that one time. I was speaking with him now in the locker room. When he’s playing well, he’s one of the most dangerous opponents on tour without a doubt.”
We’ve seen some stellar starts in tennis. John McEnroe kicked off his 1984 campaign with a 42-match win streak, finishing the year at 82-3. More recently, Novak Djokovic won his first 41 matches in 2011 en route to a 70-6 mark. Andrey Rublev isn’t quite there yet, but the tennisphere is fast taking notice of the Russian’s start to 2021.
After a straight-sets, 7-5, 6-2, 6-3 dispatch of Spaniard Feliciano Lopez in the third round, Rublev, the seventh seed at Melbourne Park, is a spotless 7-0 on the year, a streak that includes a title with his countrymen at the ATP Cup.
Last year, the Russian won his first 11 matches of the season, claiming titles in Doha and Adelaide before falling to David Goffin in the fourth round at Melbourne Park. When he gets on a run, he’s very difficult to stop. Also last year, Rublev won 19 of 20 matches during a hot streak that reaped titles in Hamburg, St. Petersburg and Vienna and a quarter-final appearance (l. Tsitsipas) at Roland Garros.
Into the Round of 16 at the Australian Open for the second year in a row, Rublev will next face 24th seed Casper Ruud of Norway.
“He’s been one of the best players on Tour the last seven, eight, nine months, so I’m up for a big test on Monday,” said Ruud, only the second Norwegian player to reach the Round of 16 at a Grand Slam. (The first was his father and coach, Christian, at this same tournament in 1997.)
“It’s going to be a physical match because he has really great physical power,” said Rublev, whose two wins over Ruud came in Hamburg in 2019 and 2020. “He can run a lot. He’s hitting the forehand really hard.”
This from a player who, despite his slight 165-pound build, possesses a penetrating, heavy-ball forehand usually reserved for the likes of a Juan Martin del Potro or Fernando Gonzalez. It’s the kind of shot that leaves commentators wondering aloud over the airwaves: Where does that firepower come from?
With Rublev and ATP Cup teammates Daniil Medvedev and Aslan Karatsev all advancing, this is the first time in the Open Era that three Russian men have reached the Round of 16 at the Australian Open. Like Rublev, the fourth seed Medvedev has yet to lose in 2021. (In fact, he’s riding a 17-match win streak that dates back to November 2020.) He’ll look to keep that going when he takes the court against the only American man remaining in the draw: Mackenzie McDonald. The 192nd-ranked former UCLA standout has battled injuries of late, but appears to be putting it all together again. (See his 6-4, 6-2, 4-6, 6-4 upending of 22nd seed Borna Coric in the second round.)
“He’s tricky, man,” said McDonald of his next opponent, against whom he’s 0-2. “Honestly, he makes a ton of balls. He’s got amazing reach. His serve is really good. Returns, exceptional. I mean, he can really do everything. It’s showing with his ranking and his results. That’s been definitely a struggle for me in the past playing him. He’s made me feel uncomfortable. But, hopefully, I can take all those matches into consideration for my next one and I’ll plan accordingly and hopefully I can make the best of it.”
Rounding out the action on Day 8 will be a hard-hitting affair between fifth seed Stefanos Tsitsipas of Greece and ninth-seeded Italian Matteo Berrettini. This won’t be their first encounter in Melbourne. In fact, in their only career ATP Head2Head, Tsitsipas downed Berrettini in the opening round of the Australian Open, 6-7(3), 6-4, 6-3, 7-6(4). in 2019. Tsitsipas has twice reached the Round of 16 here, his best result a semi-final showing in 2019 (l. to Nadal 6-2, 6-4, 6-0).