Reem Abulleil spoke to Argentine world No. 12 Diego Schwartzman ahead of his Roland Garros quarter-final against Rafael Nadal in Paris.
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.
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.”
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.