Five questions with Fabio Fognini

He is widely perceived as a jokester, a nonchalant, swashbuckling Italian player who doesn't take himself too seriously.

Sometimes that seemed to be the case with his tennis, too.

In the fourth round of the 2011 French Open, Fognini was called for an astounding 12 foot faults -- and smiled each time. And yet, he somehow managed to win that match against Albert Montanes, saving no fewer than five match points in a 4-hour, 22-minute contest that was decided 11-9 in the fifth set.

That Fognini advanced to the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam (where he would lose to Novak Djokovic) was almost a footnote.

Now, at age 26, there is evidence that Fognini -- ranked a career-high No. 14 among ATP World Tour players -- is maturing.

Last year, in his second season with coach Jose Perlas, Fognini posted a career-best No. 16 ranking. He says Perlas -- who has coached greats Carlos Moya, Albert Costa, Guillermo Coria and Juan Carlos Ferrero, among others -- is a big reason for his success.

In the crucible of Davis Cup earlier this month -- on the road at Argentina -- Fognini managed to win three points, setting up a home April quarterfinal against Great Britain, where he's likely to play a pivotal rubber against Andy Murray.

Moreover, Fognini is in the midst of an unconscious run on clay. Going back to last year's events in Stuttgart, Hamburg and Umag, Croatia, Fognini, as of Thursday, had won 19 of 20 matches on dirt. He may not be quite ready to claim Rafael Nadal's mantle of the "King of Clay," but how about Prince?

ESPN.com caught up with Fognini late Wednesday night in Buenos Aires at the Copa Claro, where he is the No. 2 seed behind David Ferrer. This, after he had beaten Leonardo Mayer in a second-round match -- after beating Mayer for the title the week before at Vina del Mar, Chile.

ESPN.com: What were the reasons for your breakthrough season last year?

Fabio Fognini: I think mentally I improved a lot, which made my game much better overall. Jose, he's helped me a lot, for sure. He's the best coach of my life and I really enjoy working with him. I am in a good way and I would like to stay with him as long as possible. Another thing that helps is my psychologist, Jose's wife. My mind has changed a lot in three years, which you see in my game. Every week I have the opportunity to improve my game and my mind.

ESPN.com: In terms of shots, in which area have you improved the most?

Fognini: The forehand, definitely. It was always my best shot, but now I am even more aggressive. When I have to play the forehand, my movement to get into position is much better. That gives me the confidence to hit it bigger.

ESPN.com: What emotions did you feel last week in winning three points for your Davis Cup team?

Fognini: Oh ... [long pause]. It was a really good sensation. Playing for your country is always different and playing in Argentina was very, very difficult. The fans there are very supportive. It was not easy, but I have a very good memory in my mind of those days.

ESPN.com: You got to the fourth round of the Australian Open -- your best effort since reaching the quarters of the 2011 French Open. What do you need to do, specifically, to get a Grand Slam quarter again?

Fabio Fognini: The Grand Slams are really difficult. You have 128 guys, and you play five sets. The best players usually go into the second week without many problems. In my position now, top 15, I have more opportunities to do that, for sure. I played good in this Australian Open (beating Sam Querrey in the third round and losing to Djokovic in the fourth), but one of my goals for the three Grand Slams left this year is to go deeper.

ESPN.com: Fabio is such a terrific name ... how did your parents come up with that?

Fognini: [Laughing] I really don't know. I never asked them. The family history is with the "F." My father's name is Fulvio and my sister is Fulvia. My cousin's name is Fabiania. The only one without an "F" is my cousin Marco. It's a family tradition, for sure.