The two-time champion and world No1 Novak Djokovic was favoured to beat all-comers at the tournament he calls home on his way to a record 54th showdown with 11-time champion Rafael Nadal.
But the 28-year-old world No48 was a man on a mission, and had decimated a tough quarter, including David Goffin and Dominic Thiem, and was yet to drop a set in four matches.
That he had never reached a main-tour final let alone won a title only added to the scale of his surge. He had won only six matches this year before arriving on Monte-Carlo’s clay, and had only reached his ranking high this year.
What were his chances, though, against one of the form players of the last 12 months, Daniil Medvedev, winner of four titles in 15 months, tour-leader on 21 match-wins, and victor over Djokovic and Stefanos Tsitsipas?
The two men were meeting in their respective first Masters semi-finals, but Medvedev had won their only previous meeting, and he started just as he had most of this week, with a quick opening hold, and then a break for a 2-0 lead. After a quarter of an hour, the Russian was up, 3-0.
Lajovic faced 30-30 in the fourth game, but at last got on the board, only to be broken again in what was beginning to look like a trouncing, 5-1. But from that point, Lajovic began stringing together some fine, flexible patterns of play to break up Medvedev’s rhythm, and twice broke back 5-5.
As had been the case in his win over Tsitsipas, Medvedev’s serving level began to slip to 40 percent, while Lajovic’s was climbing, and all at once, the Serb had another break point. He converted at the second attempt to serve for the set in a remarkable turn-around, and sure enough, sealed the deal, 7-5.
Lajovic was not done, and rode that form into the second set with an immediate break, and then another, 3-0, a run of nine games. That extended to 4-0 before Medvedev stopped the rot, but with an hour and half on the clock, the Russian had to serve to save the match, 1-5—and he could not do so. At the first time of asking, the creative Serb with the one-handed backhand had broken once more for a famous win, 6-1, the lowest-ranked Monte-Carlo finalist since 2001.
Lajovic had never won four consecutive tour-level matches before arriving at the Monte-Carlo Country Club, but with his fifth straight win, he is into his first final—and a Masters final at that.
The odds suggested that his final opponent would be the 11-time champion Rafael Nadal, who was aiming to reach his 13th Monte-Carlo final when he took on No13 seed Fabio Fognini. Nadal was 71-4 in the tournament, and yet to drop a set this week.
However, the charismatic Italian could count two wins over Nadal on clay, in Barcelona and Rio, and he had the look of a man on a mission.
Now he sought a quick start against Nadal, and got four chances to break as the first game extended past 12 minutes—and the Italian got his wish.
But as is so often the case, the Spaniard broke back immediately, and then held to wrench back the lead with another break, 3-1.
Yet again, Fognini produced a bit of magic to level things up, sliding into the line-judge seats, producing a drop-lob combo to beat even the speed of Nadal: It was back to 3-3.
The Italian continued to test and dazzle, and broke Nadal to love to serve for the set. Another drop shot, and a volley winner played with the casual swagger that only Fognini brings to court, did the job, 6-4.
He had made 10 winners to five from Nadal, with 6/6 points won at the net. However, 16 errors from the Italian racket went some way to explaining the seesawing fortunes of the match.
Fognini continued to frustrate Nadal in the second set, breaking immediately and then throwing in a love hold with an ace, 2-0 and, remarkably, breaking for 3-0. He had won 24 of last 29 points, with his backhand down the line was wreaking havoc.
Twice Nadal hit his forehand long, failing to take advantage on the Fognini serve, 4-0. The Italian made first a backhand winner down the line, then a forehand at 160kph, and the effortless power and precision brought up 5-0.
Nadal was facing a bagel set at 40-0 down, with Fognini serving for home, but Nadal saved all three match points, and for good measure made two winners to break, 5-1.
The Spaniard held, too, but Fognini made no mistake this time, and served out a remarkable win, in little more than an hour and half, 6-2, having 21 made winners, to an uncharacteristically high number of 25 errors from Nadal.
Remarkably, for a man who had won eight titles from 18 finals in his long career, this will be Fognini’s first Masters final. It is all the more remarkable because, after winning a career-best three titles last year, Fognini entered this tournament on a five-match losing streak on clay and looked set to make that six in his opening match. But after Andrey Rublev led the Italian 6-4, 4-1, Fognini turned on the kind of form that the local Italian fans have found irresistible.
One thing is certain when Fognini is involved and the Italian support is packed in: It will be a lively, unpredictable and fascinating final.
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BIOGRAPHY: Ethan Hazard
BIOGRAPHY: Daniel Sturridge