Tennis, particularly the men’s side, has fallen into a certain rhythm, and if you’re a certain kind of old-school clay-court fogey, this rhythm might be boring. Boom, boom, boom, boom. The serve is the most powerful offensive tool in the game. It is the only shot in the game completely within a player’s control: Throw the ball up exactly where you’d like and then hit it down exactly as you’d like—and if you’re tall, hit it even “more down,” and even harder. So the default expectation is that a player wins his service games. A survey of serve performance on men’s tour over the last 52 weeks reveals that even the 99th best server on tour, Carlos Berlocq, has claimed his service games 70.0 percent of the time. This is the rhythm of your average set of tennis: hold, hold, hold, hold, break, hold, hold, hold, hold, hold. Basically, watch a bunch of people tall enough to play in an NBA backcourt bash balls hard enough to wrest an enormous advantage, then finish up whatever’s left.
If this bores you, as it sometimes bores me, you may find enormous relief in the not–enormous Diego Schwartzman. Listed charitably at 5-foot-7, he now stands at No. 11 in the live rankings and across the net from Rafael Nadal, even winning the first set before a rain delay suspended today’s French Open quarterfinal. The game has perhaps never been less friendly to athletes of his stature. Even a passing glimpse of him on the court is surprising—his body in proportion to the racket in his hand, the way he throws himself into balls. The angles required to hit an elite serve are simply not available to him. The bushel of easy points on which other players happily feast are not lying there on the table for him.
And so, Schwartzman has dug in and excelled at every other aspect of the game, has found ways to work around this glaring disadvantage. The way for him to win is to hit every other shot brilliantly enough to compensate. He is furious in his movement—slow-motion replays catch him sprinting around the clay squirrel-cheeked, huffing and puffing—and he strikes the ball as cleanly as anyone on tour. Over the last 52 weeks, only three players have surpassed Diego’s 31.9 percent win rate on return games, and that short list contains some of the smartest returners of all time: Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, and Andy Murray.
None of these adaptations has come to Schwartzman easily, or quickly. Now age 25, he has moved in fits and starts across surfaces and up the rankings. This is how longtime Diego Schwartzman enthusiast and Thirty Love podcast host Carl Bialik described the unlikely trajectory to me:
Diego’s story is just so damn improbable. He couldn’t win on tour — too short, too weak — and then, he could. He couldn’t win off clay, and then he could, going deep on hard courts. He couldn’t reach the Top 50; now he’s on the cusp of the Top 10. He couldn’t beat Rafael Nadal on clay — and, well, he probably still can’t. But he sure can push Nadal, giving him some of his tougher battles on clay, and off, these last two years. He’s also lovable (watch his winner agains John Isner last year, and his reaction), beloved by other players, and a shoo-in for the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame.
Last fall Schwartzman made the U.S. Open quarterfinal and became the shortest player in 23 years to do so. Schwartzman has never beaten Nadal in five meetings, and had only won one set of the previous 13. Today, all the skills he’s honed helped him take another set of Rafa, ending the Spaniard’s 32-set streak here that extends back to the start of the 2017 tournament. Regardless of how this quarterfinal match plays out, Schwartzman already has earned one more set for his trophy shelf.
Through that first set Nadal appeared more error-prone and less comfortable on serve than usual, and Schwartzman embraced the opportunity, reeling off 20 winners in the set, and sticking to the only quasi-blueprint for beating Rafa on dirt: Go for bold shots, and do not play for the sake of hanging in the point, because it will not work. Nadal will out-survive and out-compete you. Were you even watching him sprint, not walk, to the baseline after the coin flip? Or, alternatively, were you watching the French Open at any point over the last thirteen years? The only available move is to hit the ball hard enough and far enough from that man that he cannot possibly get a racket on it. Even if that requires Schwartzman to heave his entire, undersized body off the clay and into his backhand, that is what must be done.
There were five breaks in the first set alone. By the end of today’s play both players had racked up five breaks each. A successful service game almost began to feel like an anomaly. Schwartzman’s serve has never been special, and Nadal’s was unusually limp today. Both players hung deep in the court on return to give the serve plenty of time to slow down and sink to a comfortable height, then hit the ball back with comfort, then scooted to the baseline to take a crack at a basically neutral rally. Late in the first set, Rafa had a trainer come on to wrap both of his wrists, albeit for sweat-absorbing reasons and not medical ones, reportedly. Eventually Schwartzman managed to lock up the set with a 100–mph forehand winner, a representative sample of the shots that were working for him.
Then the rain came. Schwartzman had gone up 3-2 in the second when the weather stalled play. The players returned to the court, but by the time play was suspended for good, the set stood at 5-3 in Rafa’s favor. There were echoes of the Rome final last month, when the third-set rain killed Alexander Zverev’s momentum (by his own admission) and allowed Rafa blow open the match and claim the title. Rain delay always offers a reset and recovery. Think about who this favors. If Schwartzman were feeling good and playing well before the rain, he is feeling and playing differently after it. Maybe better, maybe worse, most likely a regression to his personal mean. The same goes for Nadal, but Nadal’s mean is much meaner than his mean.
Tomorrow, both players will wake up and resume the match, and Schwartzman will attempt to complete one of the most Herculean labors in all of sports: beat Nadal at Roland Garros, something that has happened only twice in 82 career matches there. Robin Soderling and Novak Djokovic sit alone on that peak. If by the end of Thursday there is a third person on that list, he will be, by seven inches, the shortest ever to do it.