MONACO — On the clay courts where he once practiced as a youth with big dreams, Fabio Fognini won the biggest title of his erratic career by beating Dusan Lajovic 6-3, 6-4 Sunday in the Monte Carlo Masters final.
The local lad from nearby San Remo, a 40-minute drive away along the Mediterranean coast and over the Italian border, made a breakthrough at the highest level so far at the age of 31. Lajovic lost the first final of his career at age 28.
Although it was Fognini's ninth career title, it was his first at Masters level and will help him push closer to the top 10 when he climbs six places up to 12th in the rankings.
''I was born in San Remo, and I was practicing 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 13th-seeded Italian's first title of the year came the day after he stunned defending champion Rafael Nadal in straight sets, becoming the first player to beat Nadal at the Monte Carlo Country Club since Novak Djokovic in the 2015 semifinals.
''It has been an incredible week, I will keep working,'' Fognini said. ''I started the season badly so this is unbelievable.''
After going out in the third round of the Australian Open, Fognini had won only one match and lost six times before this tournament.
Somehow, he's turned it all around—and it feels exhausting.
''Mentally I'm so tired but really, really happy because I won a big tournament that was always my goal in my career,'' he said. ''We are talking about Masters Series and the next one is a Grand Slam. So it is second in the line.''
Fognini's career has seen many flashes of brilliance—his flicked, laser-beam forehands fly down the line at astonishing speed and his cross-court backhand is equally dangerous—but he's also thrown many temper tantrums. A player who has beaten Nadal three times on clay in his career, and beaten Nadal once at the U.S. Open after trailing by two sets, must be doing something right.
But there have always been question marks hanging over Fognini, and finally winning a Masters may help shed some self-doubt.
''He definitely has the game for top 10,'' Lajovic said. ''We all know that tennis is not just tennis, it's mental most of the time. So it depends on him.''
The 48th-ranked Lajovic's run to his first career final was unexpected. But the unseeded Serb rarely threatened in humid, overcast and slightly windy conditions.
Fognini needed a medical timeout to receive treatment to his right foot and right thigh after the fifth game of the second set.
But it did not impede him as he served out the match, clinching victory on his second match point when Lajovic hit a forehand wide.
Lajovic graciously acknowledged he was outplayed.
''I had to work much harder than him to win the points, this was the key,'' he said. ''When I was aggressive, I was able to make points and put him under pressure. But at times, my game was just off. I had a lot of unforced errors.''
Fognini is only the fourth man to win the clay-court event since Nadal's first of a record 11 wins in 2005. Djokovic, twice, and Stan Wawrinka also won.
The last Italian before Fognini was Nicola Pietrangeli in 1968.
The 85-year-old Pietrangeli, a two-time French Open winner, stood and applauded as Fognini dropped to his knees to kiss the surface.
Pietrangeli walked gingerly onto the court and posed alongside Fognini as he held the trophy.
The match started evenly enough, but Fognini broke for a 4-2 lead when Lajovic made an unforced error on forehand. Fognini then held his serve with a typically flamboyant one-handed, cross-court backhand to take control.
Serving for the set, Fognini saved a break point with a forehand winner down the line, and then clinched it with an equally good backhand.
Fognini broke for a 3-2 lead in the second set when Lajovic hit a forehand wide.
After Fognini's medical timeout, Lajovic missed an easy smash at 30-30 in the next game.
With that miss, his slim hopes faded.