Modern men’s professional tennis does not really do small.
The last Grand Slam men’s singles champion who was not at least 183 cm tall was Gaston Gaudio of Argentina, the 2004 French Open champion. During the past decade, as tennis has become ever more physical, just two men under 183 cm have even made a Grand Slam final.
And yet, the most dangerous man in Paris right now besides Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic may be a steady baseliner from Argentina named Diego Schwartzman, whose listed height of 170 cm could be one of the more generous measurements in professional sports.
In the biggest win of his career, Schwartzman knocked off the No. 3 seed, Dominic Thiem, the U.S. Open champion, in a five-set marathon that lasted five hours and eight minutes. The 7-6 (1), 5-7, 6-7 (6), 7-6 (5), 6-2 victory featured Schwartzman in his classic form — gritty, relentless and surprising and, for his opponent, endlessly frustrating.
Thiem had played in marathon matches previously, including his fourth-round win over Hugo Gaston and in his U.S. Open final last month. But on a cold and blustery evening in Paris he finally ran out of gas, staggering around the red clay of Roland Garros after missing his chance to put away Schwartzman in the fourth set.
Schwartzman, the No. 12 seed, had missed his own chances to win quickly, blowing opportunities to win both the second and third sets.
“I was out of my mind,” he said of his play early on. “I was so nervous. I saw a chance today and I didn’t take it in the second and third sets.”
When it counted though, he took every chance he had, running away with the final set in dominant fashion against a listing opponent who played like a boxer who had been knocked out but hadn’t fallen down. On the final point, Thiem sent a limp drop shot floating into the bottom of the net, and Schwartzman, 28, had his first win in a major against one of the top five players in the world, as well as a triumph for every undersized weekend tennis warrior.
Schwartzman, who made his first Grand Slam semifinal with the win, has won nine of his past 10 matches during the abbreviated season on Europe’s clay courts, his favorite surface, especially this year.
In Rome, he pulled off one of the rarest achievements in the game in the past 15 years — a win against Nadal on red clay — before losing to Djokovic, the world No. 1, in the Italian Open final.
Thiem, at 185 cm, is officially listed as 15 cm taller than Schwartzman, a close friend and former doubles partner, but in reality, the difference is closer to 25 cm. (I am 172 cm. I have stood eye-to-eye with Schwartzman. He is not 170 cm.)
It is possible that Schwartzman’s parents knew very early that he might excel in sports despite his height — they named him for Diego Maradona (165 cm), another undersized sports hero from their country. His nickname is El Peque — a slang term in Spanish that roughly means “shorty” in English.
Thiem, who had made it clear he has been running on fumes since his marathon U.S. Open final, may have doomed his chances in this match when he was stretched to five sets against the French qualifier Gaston, ranked No. 239, on Sunday. Gaston, at 170 cm — another relatively diminutive player — delivered a perfect game plan for Schwartzman to follow, frustrating Thiem with his display of spins, drop shots and unrelenting defense.
When that match was over, Thiem saw Schwartzman cooling down from his match on an exercise bike. Knowing he was going to need all of the help he could get, Thiem wandered over and gave Schwartzman a pretend whack on the leg.
“Obviously, playing like how I’m playing the last two weeks on clay, I have chances,” Schwartzman said.
Indeed he did. He knows the circumstances — the schedule, the weather and a switch to what players say is a heavier ball — have aligned to give him perhaps the best chance he will ever have to make a Grand Slam final.
The French Open usually takes place in late May and early June, but organizers moved it to this early fall time slot because of the coronavirus pandemic, which largely shut down sports in the spring. In Rome last month, and in Paris the past 10 days, temperatures have been cool, mostly in the teens.
The cooler temperatures have had a significant effect on the behavior of the tennis ball, which becomes less lively in colder weather. Also, the tournament organizers switched their ball sponsorship to Wilson from Babolat this year, and players say the new ball is heavier than the old one.
Those factors have combined to remove the most powerful arrow from the quiver of anyone who relies heavily on blasting the ball through the court, and helps a relentless and quick defender like Schwartzman, who limits his errors and avoids giving away free points.
“This is tough on the big hitters,” said Martina Navratilova, the 18-time Grand Slam champion. “If you are fast and you can run around and go get the ball, you have an advantage. Someone like Nadal, he gets hurt.”
That dynamic was on display against Thiem, a massive hitter who nailed 65 winners, several on drop shots of his own, but also made 81 unforced errors, and watched Schwartzman chase down ball after ball that he never expected to be returned. That was no accident. For a small player like Schwartzman, a deader ball is a blessing, because it rarely bounces out of his strike zone, and with an extra split second to tee up his shots, he can be incredibly dangerous when his opponents are serving.
Schwartzman has won more than $8 million on tour, but he has just three ATP Tour titles in his career. His ranking has steadily climbed the past four years, far higher than most would have given him a chance in an era when the rising elite of the sport appear to be taller every year.
“You never know when your ceiling is going to be there, and you don’t know if you’re going to reach another quarterfinals or reach another final in a big tournament,” Schwartzman said on Sunday. “Every year I can improve, I can do a few more things better.”
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