When Diego Schwartzman takes to Court Philippe Chatrier on Wednesday for his maiden Roland Garros quarter-final, he will be looking to accomplish what has often been described as the toughest feat in tennis: Defeating Rafael Nadal in a best-of-five match on clay.
Nadal’s win-loss record at the tournament is a mythical 83-2. The Spaniard is targeting an 11th title in Paris this fortnight and has won his last 37 consecutive completed sets at the French Open (only Bjorn Borg has posted a longer streak of 41).
Schwartzman has an Everest to climb today and he knows it. But the 25-year-old Argentine tends to thrive as an underdog – it’s something he has been accustomed to most of his life.
At 170cm, Schwartzman is the shortest player in the top-100. With tennis getting taller with each passing season – five of the world’s top-10 are 198cm or taller – Schwartzman often finds himself facing far bigger opposition, blasting missiles for serves and bullets for groundstrokes.
On Monday in the fourth round, Schwartzman came back from two sets down to defeat South African world No. 7 Kevin Anderson, who is 203cm tall.
“Did you read David and Goliath?” Schwartzman told reporters with a grin after his heroic victory.
Many people discouraged Schwartzman when he was younger and was aspiring to become a professional tennis player.
“Sometimes a coach or people came and say it’s going to be really difficult for you to play tennis and I think it was true, it wasn’t easy. Then I think I did many good things to be here now and I’m trying to keep doing it,” he told Sport360 on the sidelines of the French Open.
Nicknamed ‘El Peque’, which roughly translates to ‘shorty’ in English, Schwartzman admits the average height in tennis keeps increasing.
“When I started to play tennis it was not like this. I think the regular size was 180cm or something, the Argentinean players were like this. I started to play tennis like this,” says Schwartzman.
“Maybe now it’s a little bit different, the players are really tall and that’s helping them have big serves and high velocity in the arm and big shots.”
As taller players are getting fitter and moving better, their height certainly gives them an advantage. But Schwartzman knows how to capitalise on his own advantages. He’s fast, fit and enjoys the physicality of the best-of-five format.
— Gabriela Sabatini (@sabatinigabyok) June 4, 2018
He leads the Roland Garros tournament in percentage of second-serve return points won with an impressive 68% and is now into the quarter-finals for a second time in his last three Grand Slams. His maiden appearance at this stage at a major came at the US Open last September and he has continued to build confidence ever since, rising from 41 in the world this time last season, to his current position at No. 12.
“I think after a few Slams, I started to think ‘okay I like to play five sets’ and I think that is the key,” Schwartzman says.
“Before I went to the court today and every day in the Grand Slams, I have the confidence to win and I have the confidence to be there many hours and I think that’s important at the Slams.
“I think I’m strong there and I think the players know that. The players know I can take every ball and it’s not easy for them starting to play a match and they don’t know when it’s going to finish.”
Nadal has been vocal about his concern for the sport’s future if it doesn’t adapt to the increasing presence of taller players. He feels the height of the net should be raised to avoid the case of entire matches being dominated by serves.
Carlos Moya, an ex-world No. 1 who coaches Nadal, agrees with his charge.
“It would be great to have more Schwartzmans on the tour. But every time the players are taller, bigger, faster, stronger, but it’s not only tennis players. It’s the same in other sports too,” said Moya.
Anderson doesn’t believe tennis will only be led by giants in the future.
“I feel like if you look at somebody like Diego, no matter what universe we play tennis in, he’s always going to be really a tough opponent to play, regardless of your height,” said the South African.
Nadal has practically breezed through his first four matches in Paris this fortnight, and came to the tournament having won Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Rome in the build-up. Still Moya is wary of the threat posed by Schwartzman for Nadal in the quarter-finals.
“Diego is very fast, very talented, hits the ball very flat, he has a lot of talent and that makes him dangerous,” said the Spaniard.
Nadal reserves a lot of respect for Schwartzman, who took a set off the world No. 1 at the Australian Open this year, and also tested him in a recent clash in Madrid. They are good friends and Schwartzman spent some time training at Nadal’s academy in Mallorca.
“I played with him at the academy, but I’m never going to invite him again, because every time he comes, he comes out much better,” joked Nadal on Monday.
Schwartzman knew he landed in Nadal’s quarter of the draw early on in the tournament, and he’s been looking forward to a potential clash with the Mallorcan, despite his 0-5 losing record against him.
“I want to play always with him, because now with my ranking, I know if I play against him it’s going to be in the good rounds,” said Schwartzman.
“Obviously it’s nice to play against him, he’s my friend, we have a good relationship outside the court and I think many matches against him I have a few chances – not to beat him but to do better matches than I’ve done in the past.”
He joked during his press conference when he was asked about his latest visit to the Rafa Nadal Academy: “I took his secrets. He has all the recipes.”
While Schwartzman, a two-time ATP titlist, has been getting more attention for his improving results on the court, his popularity has been rising online because of his dance moves, which have been on display on his social media.
“I just do it because I’m kidding. I like to joke in the media,” he says with a laugh.
“I get lots of comments, because the people like to see these kind of things from athletes.
“Many people are shy with the media, it’s not easy. Sometimes I like to do it, sometimes no, because when I’m not playing my best tennis it’s not easy, because the people start to say ‘okay you’re always all the day here, and not focusing on tennis’ and it’s not true. I’m always the same person.”
Pool party! 🙌🙌🙌 – From Diego’s IG pic.twitter.com/WqyCuu4T8D
— Chad (@CCSMOOTH13) January 26, 2018
This is the first time since 2005 that two Argentines have made it to the Roland Garros quarter-finals in the men’s singles draw, with Juan Martin del Potro also joining Schwartzman in the last-eight.
Del Potro, the 2009 US Open champion, advanced to the quarters here for the first time since 2012. He’s pleased to see Schwartzman do so well.
“I’m looking forward to keep watching him in that level against Rafa. I know he has everything to do a good match,” assured Del Potro.
Unfortunately, not all news has been positive when it comes to Argentinean tennis. Three days before Roland Garros started, news broke that Argentina’s world No. 95 Nicolas Kicker was found guilty of match-fixing.
Schwartzman was shocked at the revelation.
“It was not easy, nobody expected that. Nicolas is my friend, he’s the friend of many people. We never expected that. It’s a bad thing, he knows what he did is bad. I don’t know the case really good. I didn’t speak with him after I saw the news. But it’s always a bad thing, that is not a good thing in sport,” said Schwartzman.
Andy Murray says he “getting closer” to a playing return following hip surgery.
The Scot has not played competitively since last year’s Wimbledon, undergoing surgery at the turn of the year in a bid to cure his injury woes.
With Wimbledon fast approaching, Murray says he has returned to training and playing in the grass court season remains his aim.
Speaking in a video on the Guardian’s website, he said: “It’s been very slow, I’ve been out getting close to a year now which is a lot longer than I expected at the beginning.
“I’m getting closer to playing again, I’ve started training a few days ago, hoping to make my comeback during the grass court season.”
It’s no secret that Madison Keys has had a complicated relationship with clay over the years but the 23-year-old American is probably developing positive feelings about the red dirt now that she has made it into the Roland Garros quarter-finals for the first time.
Keys, seeded 13 in Paris, completed the set of last-eight appearances at all four Grand Slams when she eased past Mihaela Buzarnescu in the fourth round on Sunday to set up a Tuesday quarter-final against the volatile Yulia Putintseva.
A runner-up at the US Open last season, Keys is into the quarter-finals at a third consecutive major and a fifth time overall, and admits she’s finally starting to enjoy the clay.
“I like it a little bit more now,” Keys says with a smile.
“It’s always a little bit easier to like it when you’re in the quarter-finals, though.”
In a bottom half of the draw that was thrown wide open with the defeats of several high seeds early on in the tournament, Keys has a golden opportunity in front of her to go further than she ever expected at the French Open.
“It’s been obviously really exciting for her and for all of us. Because I think the expectations weren’t super-high coming here,” Keys’ coach Lindsay Davenport told Sport360.
“But this was the first clay-court season that she’s gone early, and she went for Fed Cup and stayed all the way over.
“She’s feeling good, obviously being healthy is most important, but sometimes it’s just an attitude and a presence that a player has and since the draw came out and since she took the court for her very first match, she has been completely fine.
“Hasn’t been overwhelmed with doubts about the surface or how her game translates on the surface, and that obviously makes a big difference.”
Keys started with a semi-final showing on green clay in Charleston in April, before heading to France where she helped USA defeat the hosts in Fed Cup. An early exit in Madrid was followed by two good wins in Rome before she pulled out of her last-16 clash with Simona Halep with a rib injury.
But before she withdrew from Rome, there was a noticeable calmness to Keys, who was flying solo there, without a coach, having split with Dieter Kindlmann, who had been traveling with her for a year, since they teamed up in May 2017.
“We could not communicate,” Keys said of why she parted ways with Kindlmann, who is a former hitting partner of Maria Sharapova.
“It seems like we were both trying to say the same thing but could never get it. He’s a great guy and it was obviously a tough decision, it’s not the perfect timing for that, but it just became too hard trying to communicate and it just seems like we weren’t really getting it.”
And what was life like flying solo?
“I’ve been getting my own stringing done, today we should practice at this time, let’s see who is open. It’s really like ‘man I’ve got this’,” she said in Rome.
Davenport caught up with Keys in Paris ahead of the French Open and is proud of how her charge handled the decision to part ways with Kindlmann.
“It’s definitely gone better than I thought it would go. Sometimes you try and make something work that is hard to work,” explained Davenport, a former world No. 1 and three-time Grand Slam champion.
“She was the one who made the final decision.
“My biggest thing with her, over the years, is: You are in charge, you are the boss. And I think for a lot of young players coming up, they follow what other people do for them or tell them.
“When the message comes down, it’s like, ‘okay, I respect that, this is your ship, now what do you want to do though? Now you have to deal with the ramifications’.
“And I give her a lot of credit, she was without a coach for 10, 11 days and she was like ‘I know, I got it’. USTA coach, Ola (Malmqvist) came in to help her because I told her, ‘I can’t get into Paris until May 25’ and she was like ‘I know, I’m good’.
“And Ola helped her for a few days here. And then I think we fell into a nice rhythm here again and things are okay. She took it upon herself and sometimes you need to go through those times where you are responsible. She stepped up to the plate and now the look will start for someone else.”
Keys gives a lot of credit to Davenport when it comes to her success at the Slams.
“Lindsay has been amazing for me in a lot of ways, but I think we have always really managed slams well, which, before I started working with her was always a tough one for me, especially managing my emotions,” explains Keys.
“But not only that, she’s just really helped me enjoy the game, and she helped me through a really tough time when I was dealing with my wrists and all of that. Having her in my corner, whether formally as my coach or not, she’s someone that I have always relied on, and I probably always will.”
Keys went through a rough period at the end of 2016 and start of 2017, undergoing two wrist surgeries.
She rebounded by making her first Grand Slam final at the US Open in September, where she lost to fellow American and good friend Sloane Stephens.
“I think the US Open, for me, was a lot higher energy and just because it was late at night and all of that. So to be here and just kind of consistently getting through and just being happy with kind of low-drama matches has been really nice,” says Keys.
Keys and Stephens could potentially face off in the semi-finals, if the former gets past Putintseva, and the latter overcomes Daria Kasatkina in the last-eight.
Stephens leads her friend 2-0 head-to-head but that hasn’t stopped Keys from rooting for her this fortnight in Paris.
“During treatment yesterday I had Sloane on and was living and dying on every point in the end. I saw her in the locker room, and I was, like, ‘God you made me nervous at the end’. She was, like, ‘You were nervous?’” Keys said on Sunday, referring to Stephens’ narrow victory over Camila Giorgi in the third round.
“I always want to see Sloane do well. I’d love for both of us to be able to be in the position to play each other multiple times. I’d love to be able to get a win,” she added with a smile.
“I’m always cheering for her.”
Keys believes managing expectations and nerves will be the key for her moving forward at Roland Garros and it starts with taking on a tricky opponent in Putintseva, who is through to her second quarter-final in Paris.
The 23-year-old Kazakh is known for her fiery and unpredictable personality on the court, which can often be a distraction for her opponents. Putintseva defeated Keys in their only previous meeting, 7-6 in the third set in Tokyo in 2016.
“We talked about that a lot in today’s practice. What she [Putintseva] does to try to disrupt her opponent. It could be stuff she does, it could be her game. Whether she throws in a moonball or a drop shot, or whether she makes the umpire come down and question a mark that is obviously going one way, none of that can matter,” said Davenport.
“I think Madison is so much more mature now than she’s been in the past, I think she can handle situations like that. On top of the opponent, she also has to handle the occasion, and hopefully she’s able to do that tomorrow.”
With the bottom half of the draw providing a huge opportunity for all four players still standing, Davenport sees Stephens as a real threat.
“Sloane has looked really good throughout and I thought, when she got by that Giorgi match, you always have one match in a Slam when you don’t play your best, how do you handle that situation? Do you fight through it, do you get better? And that’s exactly what happened with Sloane. She comes in with a lot of momentum,” said the American.
This is the first time since 1999 that two American women (Keys and Stephens), not named Williams, have made the quarter-finals in Paris.
Will they square off in the semis? It’s a genuine possibility!