Garbine Muguruza and Maria Sharapova both enter their Roland Garros quarter-final on Wednesday with lots of momentum from strong opening weeks in Paris but legends Martina Navratilova and Lindsay Davenport give the edge to the Spaniard in this blockbuster showdown.
The Barcelona-based Muguruza, a title winner at the French Open in 2016, is seeded No. 3 this fortnight, and has shown sizzling form so far, making the quarters without dropping a set (also benefitted from an early retirement from an injured Lesia Tsurenko in the fourth round).
The Russian, who returned from a 15-month doping suspension in April last year, is looking to reach her first Grand Slam semi-final since Wimbledon 2015.
Sharapova leads Muguruza 3-0 head-to-head but they haven’t met since 2014. The world No. 3 has won two majors since then.
Asked who she favours in this match-up, Navratilova, an 18-time Grand Slam champion, said: “You have to give an edge to Garbine, having won here a couple of years ago, a lot younger, fresher legs, more matches, all that stuff.
“But Maria has won here twice, so she clearly knows how to play on it and has her best record of all the Slams here, even though she said she can’t play on clay, go figure.”
Ex-world No. 1 and three-time major winner Davenport, who is also the coach of semi-finalist Madison Keys, agrees with Navratilova.
“I’ve probably been the most impressed, of all the players, with Muguruza so far,” said Davenport.
“She’s kind of sailed through, she’s looked really good, she’s won here before, she’s obviously comfortable playing here and I think she’s a better athlete than Sharapova.
“So then I think you have to give the edge to Muguruza in a lot of ways. It’s hard to give a player an edge over Sharapova when Sharapova has dominated the head-to-head and is so strong mentally.
“But I think Garbine has looked in a good place here, and a lot of times you can tell just looking at her and her eyes during a match where she is, and I think she looks good.”
The other quarter-final of the day will see world No. 1 Simona Halep taken on two-time Grand Slam champion Angelique Kerber.
Halep is a two-time runner-up in Paris and lost her third Grand Slam final at the Australian Open in January, to Caroline Wozniacki. The Romanian is looking to finally clinch a maiden major title and has also been in fine form this fortnight.
“I would think that she is the person putting the most pressure on herself, and maybe Romania, because they obviously want to see a champion,” Davenport said of Halep, who needs to reach at least the semis to have a chance of holding onto her No. 1 ranking.
“You have to watch Simona most closely in the bigger matches on the biggest occasions. And a lot of times you can look to her body language, either how she’s treating Darren (Cahill her coach), or treating her box, or how she’s treating herself, goes a long way to seeing how much stress she feels she’s under and I think that’s going to be her biggest thing the next few matches as it gets more and more pressure, bigger stakes, most likely better opponents.
“I like watching her between points, and kind of the communication and the vibes she’s kind of giving off tells a lot.”
A visibly dejected Novak Djokovic told reporters after his shock four-set defeat to world No. 72 Marco Cecchinato in the Roland Garros quarter-finals that he is not sure if he’ll play the grass-court season, including Wimbledon.
Djokovic fell 6-3, 7-6 (4), 1-6, 7-6 (11) to the Italian, squandering a 4-1 lead in the fourth set and getting treatment for a neck issue and a calf problem during the match.
The Serb rushed to the media centre after his loss and was bizarrely ushered into the smaller interview room, which wasn’t even ready with stenographers on hand to transcribe the press conference.
After congratulating Cecchinato and paying tribute to his performance, Djokovic was curt in his responses and was unable to reveal any of his future plans.
Asked if he at least showed his fighting spirit and felt that he got his grit back, Djokovic said: “I’m back in the locker room, that’s where I’m back.”
The ex-world No. 1 refused to articulate how he was feeling but conceded that Tuesday’s defeat was a tough pill to swallow.
“Any defeat is difficult in the Grand Slams but especially the one that came from months of build-up. I thought I had a great chance to get at least a step further but it wasn’t to be so, that’s the way it is,” said the No. 20 seed.
“He played amazing and credit to him. Congratulations for a great performance. He came out really well. I struggled from the beginning. Unfortunately it took me time to get well. I struggled with a little injury as well in the beginning and after when I warmed up it was better but it’s just a pity that I couldn’t capitalise on the chances at 4-1 in the fourth set and some break points I thought I had him there but he came back and credit to him.”
Djokovic wouldn’t expand on the physical problems he suffered during the match but added: “Just a couple of things but nothing major really, I don’t want to talk about that.”
Pressed on whether he might skip Wimbledon, Djokovic replied: “I don’t know what I’m going to do. I don’t know, I cannot give you any answer.”
Cecchinato is the lowest-ranked man to reach the Roland Garros semi-finals since a 100th-ranked Andrei Medvedev reached the last-four here in 1999.
The 25-year-old, who upset David Goffin in the previous round, is the first Italian man to reach the semi-finals at a Grand Slam since Corrado Barazzutti at the 1978 Roland Garros.
Prior to this tournament, Cecchinato had lost in the first round at each of the four Grand Slam events he had contested. He next faces No. 7 seed Dominic Thiem in the semi-finals.
“He went pretty far, semi-finals is a great result, but he didn’t seem to be under the impression [fazed] of the big stadium and big match. He held his nerves amazingly well in the important moments, he’s playing well. He’s going to play Dominic who is also in great form. Dominic is obviously the favourite but you never know,” said Djokovic.
“Am I dreaming? Maybe I’m sleeping? I don’t understand nothing.”
— Roland-Garros (@rolandgarros) June 5, 2018
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.