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D&V Debates: The Fognini Question

By: Victoria Chiesa & David Kane

A sport steeped in contradiction, tennis’ rosy history is not without its thorns. For every bowing gentleman, there is a brat smoking in the boy’s room. In the modern era, the McEnroes and Connors of yesteryear are heavily referenced in a generation of crude comments and reckless ridiculousness. But where does the game draw the line? Victoria Chiesa joins me for another discussion where we debate the crimes of and punishments for the sport’s most eye-raising rebel.

David Kane: It has lately felt like Groundhog Day in the tennis world: Italy’s Fabio Fognini acts inappropriately, receives a punishment that is seemingly disproportionate with the upset and outrage said act engenders. After losing an opening round match to a local player ranked over 500 spots beneath him, Fognini gave the middle finger to the partisan crowd. The obscene gesture earned the scorn of all who saw it, yet only yielded a $2,000 fine. All of that ignores the apparent bump Fognini gave Wang Chuhan at the handshake. What was your take on the incident and Fognini’s overall behavior in what has, ironically, been his most fruitful season on court?

Victoria Chiesa: I feel like the only time we talk about Fognini is when he does something like this. For a player ranked inside the top 20, his resumé is quite paltry. While 2014 has been a career year for him, he’s reached the second week of a Grand Slam just twice in his career, and his record against the top 10 is a meager 4-32. If he’s not going to make headlines with his tennis, I guess he feels the need to get creative. While I’m not surprised by his latest incident, that his outbursts seem to happen at random intrigues me. While McEnroe and Connors’ outbursts were almost exclusively directed towards umpires, Fognini’s run the gamut – no one is safe, whether that be officials, fans, or other players.

DK: Indeed, his ranking does belie his resumé. It bears repeating: this latest meltdown occurred against a player ranked No. 553 in the world. This isn’t happening on Centre Court against Roger Federer. All the same, countrywoman Flavia Pennetta can swear up and down that he’s an introvert at heart, but Fognini’s behavior is attention-seeking at best, and destructive at worst. At some point, it begins looking like a performance for the benefit of, who exactly? The fans who continue to vilify him? The media who gives every antic a glaring spotlight? If his only goal is to top a list of Hot Topics, he has all but clinched the Year-End No. 1.  But it might be unfair to criticize the Italian alone, as he’s not the only attitudinal member of the Small 400. What sets his behavior apart from the rest?

VC: I think the problem with Fognini is that he’s never seemed to be apologetic whenever he gets involved in one of these situations; if anything, he seems to do the opposite. He revels in all of this. A cursory glance at his Twitter page shows how he enjoys retweeting the people who call him out on his behavior, among other things. If the ATP is going to give him the proverbial slap on the wrist, and not take repeated instances of bad behavior seriously, why should he change? It’s one thing for a player to get caught up in the heat of the moment and do something he regrets; it’s entirely another matter when a player appears to go out of his way to be, well, a jerk. To an extent, Jerzy Janowicz also suffers from the same syndrome – how many times! anyone? – but Fognini’s rap sheet is much longer and more indiscriminate.

DK: The ATP’s method of punishment is an interesting wrinkle to this story. It would seem that nary a month goes by without Fognini doing something worthy of a fine. Yet time and again, the Italian pays the piper and moves on, only for the cycle to continue. Should the ATP tally his offenses and convert them into a larger punishment based on cumulative indiscretions? Perhaps his actions seem harmless in a vacuum, but the pattern is undeniable, and the message the ATP is sending to its players could do more harm than good. In sparing one player a harsher sentence, it ends up implementing a “bad behavior tax,” one small enough that any mildly successful player could pay it without worrying about his finances. Could the younger generation see Fognini and feel inspired to copy him? The argument has been made in the grunting debate, and it’s not wholly without merit in this instance. What I’m trying to say, Victoria, is this: think of the children.

VC: The ATP handed Fognini a $2,000 fine for his behavior in Shanghai, and he’s making enough money for that not to be a big deal. The fines remain the same regardless of escalation in type of or frequency of behavior, and that’s not really getting the job done. I think the ATP is missing a massive opportunity here. They have a chance to say that they’re not going to stand for this kind of behavior from their players, but instead they’ve remained silent. And I want to know why. It’s naive to think that people won’t be talking about it every time it happens, and it’s not like some of Fognini’s worst incidents have happened in the dark, either. He called Filip Krajinovic a “gypsy shit” in Hamburg. He was fined $27,500 at Wimbledon for turning Courts 17 and 18 into his own personal two-ring circus. He put his hands on Mohamed Lahyani in Madrid and told him they should take it outside. I know a lot of people like to make the argument that athletes have no obligation other than to themselves, but in reality, that’s not really true. Say what you want, but Fognini is a public figure who needs to understand that his behavior is out there for the world to see. He was asked about his on-court behavior at Wimbledon and essentially said, “I’ll always be the same.” What kind of message is that sending?

DK: What, then, should be done with this opportunity? At one point does suspending Fognini become a viable option? Or perhaps, when do his actions become irrelevant if none are met with anything beyond a minor monetary fine? Fognini’s each and every move is covered by a press corp – us included – who are once disgusted and fascinated by his behavior: disgusted by the physical threats and racial remarks, and fascinated by his Houdiniesque escapes from punishment. At the same time, this is a man who seems to crave attention, and the headlines can only serve to satisfy such a craving. If the sport’s governing body largely ignores Fognini, why shouldn’t we? Perhaps this comes from a decade of Big 4 brainwashing, but a player who can’t make deep runs at Slams or come close to challenging the game’s ever-unyielding best is not someone we would be talking about at all if not for his antics. Kevin Anderson and Roberto Bautista Agut are both ranked a few spots ahead of the Italian and would likely kill for the sort of coverage their trailing rival receives. It’s then when we realize that we’ve all had a hand in perpetuating The Ballad of Fabio; as Fognini might say to his eyebrows, “I wish I knew how to quit you.”

VC: It’s weird. I think there is a fascination with what he’s going to do next, and when or where it will happen. It’s almost like we’re waiting to see if his next outburst will be the one bad enough to force the sport’s administration to hand out a harsher punishment. Or maybe that’s just me. In any event, I think that this discussion is worth revisiting no matter the player that’s at the center of the controversy. While we’re all discussing if certain rules of tennis need changing, I think that the rules that govern player behavior are worth looking at.

How would you deal with Fognini’s behavior? What more should the ATP be doing, if anything? Sound off in the comments!

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