Fabio Fognini's performance on centre court on Sunday needed only to be set to a Puccini score and it would have become a greater hit than Tosca.
Even the setting was operatic. Fognini and his opponent found themselves padding around on the tinselled cloud off which Ana Ivanovic had just stepped. For an overture, his opponent won the first seven points of the match. Wronged by fate and misunderstood by his people, Fognini found that the net was a little bit higher on his side than on his opponent's, and the court a little bit shorter on the other side than on his. Vexation spread across his face; never in his mid-career rise into the top 20 had it been quite like this.
At first, Fognini rose above it. His opponent was a 10-year friend, almost family, so it was nice guys all round. The accompaniament then might have been from Enya. But soon enough, the darkness of the soul emerged, announced by the staccato sound of a racquet claning against a metal seat. In its moment, it was startling. Act two had begun.
Fognini dashed another racquet into the net and into the ground. He began a running soliloquy about his own performance, sometimes addressed to a ball, sometimes to a racquet, mostly to the wretched gods. He rolled his eyes, beat his fist against his heart, cried out, but oh so lyrically.
When his opponent rifled his best serve back past him, he stood with arms open and outstretched, as if to ask what should he do now. At a change of ends, he gestured to his cornermen as if to say that he would be better off playing this game on a computer, with a console and a joystick. Then he tipped half a bottle of water over himself.
The orchestra struck up a tortured tune. Fognini challenged a ball that was out by a metre, and another in the same service game, and was wrong again. Ten points in a row went by the way, and with them all hope in the second set. Fognini hit his best shot of the match, a screaming backhand pass, and followed it immediately with a double fault. A foot fault followed: the cruelty of it all.
Fognini was a stranger in a strange land; before this week, he had only ever won one match at the Australian Open. His feet were for, and of, clay, on which two-thirds of his professional wins have come. His opponent walked on some other plane: 24 wins in a row in this tournament, 27 matches since his last defeat anywhere. Was this a dagger he saw before him?
Suddenly, the music and the mood lightened. Fognini, into a third set, affected nonchalance, even a little sangfroid. Three-quarters of the way through another dashing of his racquet to the ground, he stopped, looked up at the crowd and smiled innocently, and they could not help but laugh. At a change of ends, he chopped one racquet into his bag, and cast aside another, as if to say: "Pah!" Chair umpire Carlos Bernardes looked down, not sure whether to warn him or call for an encore.
Fognini's fate was sealed, but there were points still to be won. He had one in the bag until his opponent somehow won it against the run of play. Fognini flung his racquet over the net, towards his distant opponent. The crowd roared; as futile dying acts go, this was a beauty. His opponent picked up his racquet and returned it to him, along with an affectionate pat on the back. The orchestra began to play out.
At last, his opponent could smile. "I wanted to laugh at his jokes," he said, "but I didn't want to lose concentration." Promped by Channel 7's Jim Courier, he then cranked out an uncanny imitation of his coach, Boris Becker, in his playing heyday. Having pocketed the match, his opponent stole what was left of Fognini's show.
Once, his opponent was himself infamous for howling, shirt-ripping, eyeballs rolling, umpire-beating self-recriminating and self-defeating histrionics. But that was a long time ago. Long since, Novak Djokovic took control of his temperament, his emotions, his game, his destiny, his life. He conquered all his demons, and now, brimming with the confidence of a player who has not yet lost a set in this tournament, with a favourable draw and a mountain of goodwill, stands an even-money chance of winning the Australian Open for the fourth time in a row.
Fabio Fognini never will. But, one day, he might win Eurovision.