Why the Fabio Fognini punishment could ring hollow

The Grand Slam Board's recent decision in the case of Fabio Fognini reads like the lords of tennis went out of their way not to come down too hard on the hotheaded player despite the repugnant nature of the offenses he committed at the US Open.

Early this week, the board (which writes and enforces the rules for the four major tournaments) concluded its investigation of the Fognini affair and provisionally fined him $94,000, while suspending him for two Grand Slam tournaments -- but only if he commits another "major offense" in the next two years.

In other words, Fognini walks. His sentence amounts to probation, not a suspension. And that $94,000 fine automatically gets reduced to $48,000 if the flashy 30-year-old Italian, now ranked No. 28, can control his temper and incur no further major offenses over the 24-month period ending in September 2019.

"If [Fognini] does commit another major offense, it will amount to the biggest fine and punishment ever levied in tennis -- by far," Bill Babcock, the director of the Grand Slam Board told ESPN.com. "He is in real jeopardy."

If you believe in punishment as the best deterrent, the decision may infuriate you. If you believe in rehabilitation and second chances, it may be appealing. One thing all can agree upon is that there was nothing even remotely attractive about the way Fognini incurred the wrath of the board and tennis fans worldwide.

It seems that the Grand Slam Board is trying to contain and shape player conduct, rather than simply react to it. As Babcock said, "We're not trying to suspend players from Grand Slam tournaments; we're trying to prevent them from getting suspended."

That's a nice, positive sentiment, but it will ring a little hollow if Fognini makes headlines with outrageous behavior at some ATP events. That will have no impact on his Grand Slam probation, because the ATP operates by its own, different rules.

The offenses he committed in New York in early September, all during a first-round singles loss, included calling chair umpire Louise Engzell a derogatory name in his native tongue.

Although Fognini was contrite afterward -- "I apologize to everyone, not only the chair umpire, to whom I already apologized in New York, but to everyone who felt offended, women above all," he told Italy's Sky TV in a broadcast report in early September -- the outbursts earned him a total of $24,000 in on-site fines and the attention of Babcock's outfit. The Grand Slam Board determined that Fognini had committed a "major offense," which triggered the lengthy investigation that produced this decision.

Why did the ruling take so long and end up so complicated?

"To be fair, it's a serious penalty to be barred from a Grand Slam," Babcock said. "There are lot lots of issues in play, including legal ones having to do with an individual's right to work. With a 'major offense,' it's a long process, with lots of communication between the two parties. You end up with something like a legal brief."

Babcock makes some powerful points in justifying the board's not-so-punishing punishment. The $24,000 Fognini already paid onsite at the US Open is nonrefundable; thus, even in the best-case scenario for Fognini, his vulgar antics will have ended up costing him $72,000.

Also, once the board determined that Fognini had committed a major offense, it quickly made history by suspending him. While players had been defaulted from majors in the past, none have ever been thrown out mid-tournament. Fognini and partner Simone Bolelli were still strong contenders in the doubles (and on their way with two good wins) when Fognini was yanked.

"It would have looked silly if he we allowed Fognini to finish after what he said to that chair umpire," Babcock said. "We need to get that message across: It's not entertaining to curse and abuse an umpire."

In the big picture, putting Fognini on notice for two years may do more to curb his excesses than suspending him. Only one player has ever been forced to sit out a Grand Slam via a disciplinary suspension: Jeff Tarango in 1995. The key to Fognini's future may lie in how strictly officials interpret the concept of a "major offense."

A major offense can be either of two things: engaging in "aggravated behavior" or "conduct contrary to the integrity of the game." But the fine print also says that lesser violations of the code of conduct can amount to a major offense if they can be said to constitute a "pattern of behavior."

If Fognini commits three or more minor violations at Grand Slam events (anything from uttering audible obscenities and racket smashing to arguing with officials or fans) in the coming two years, he could be charged with aggravated behavior in which case the full two-major suspension and maximum fine kick in. In addition, he will incur another serious penalty for his latest case of aggravated behavior.

Well-intentioned as the board's decision in the Fognini case may be, it still leaves a question hanging: What does a guy have to do to get suspended around here?

This lack of reciprocity is a real problem that the lords of tennis have yet to address.