David Samuels
Diego Schwartzman at the US Open, 2019David Samuels
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Diego Vs. Goliath at the US Open

Diego Schwartzman, a short and fiery Jewish tennis ace, is the man to watch

Sean Cooper
September 02, 2019
David Samuels
Diego Schwartzman at the US Open, 2019David Samuels

Every summer the spectacle of the US Open tennis championship in Flushing Meadows, Queens, is a little bit different from the year before. The security is slightly more militarized around the fairground perimeter. The sponsorship signage a bit larger around the entrance, their suggestions a touch less subliminal. The ticket prices to get past the gates and into the good seats now in the thousands of dollars. But if all this is subtle evidence of larger phenomena at work—of an affluent class busily distracting itself from their empire in entropic decline, or simply the necessary evolution of mass sporting events—there wasn’t a visible manifestation one way or the other in the faces of the jocular crowd parading through the tournament grounds this past Thursday afternoon. Amex users distracted themselves with free earpieces, which streamed a running radio broadcast of the tournament’s commentators, and IHG hotels passed out hundreds of branded sweat-wicking towels and Dixie cups filled with their fennel-infused resort spa tea. Some just went at it their own way, like the pair of Frenchmen who sprawled out on the artificial turf back behind the ESPN studio booth, their shoes off while they dried out their socks on the cement ledge in the wispy breeze.

Set back behind the behemoth Arthur Ashe stadium and tucked beside the steep-seated Grandstand, Court 7 is an enclave with the intimate feel of a local park court coincidentally occupied by the world’s top players. Unlike the other field courts smushed besides one another with shared seats and intrusive crowd flows, Court 7 is its own enclosed space. Its aluminum sideline bleachers rise to modest height on opposite sides, perpendicular to the low-slung, shrub-lined baseline fences, which keep the crowds at a comfortable distance and the feel of the match percolating at ground level.

The last match of the afternoon session saw the baby-faced Belarusian, Egor Gerasimov, playing his first match on tour against the number 20 seed, the 27-year-old Diego Schwartzman, from Argentina. As the two young men warmed up, it became clear that the six-foot-five Gerasimov had made his way through three qualifying opponents and a first round main draw match on the strength of his rigid power game, now long in vogue on the men’s tour, where heavily thwacked groundstrokes and a big, flat serve function as weapons of attrition, successful for whomever manages to first grind their opponent down into submission.

Schwartzman, in contrast, was a rather curious sight. Quite short for a tennis pro at five-foot-six, the right-hander’s wide shoulders and tapered waist suggested an athlete from a different domain, like a high school volleyball player or a junior college wrestler cutting weight. And there wasn’t much pace on his groundstrokes either. Yet, according to the bookies and general consensus, Schwartzman was the match favorite.

The highest-seeded Jewish player at this year’s US Open at number 20 in the men’s draw, Schwartzman was raised in Bueno Aires as the fourth child of parents who lost their small business to bankruptcy. He lacked the resources for the expensive racquets, coaching lessons, tournament fees, and travel expenses that are the material barrier to entry for most competitive junior tennis players. At 13, his doctor matter-of-factly declared that he was anatomically unlikely to ever rise taller than five-foot-seven, a heartbreaker for a boy with ambitions to play on a tour dominated by six-foot men.

Encouraged by his mother, herself a one-time amateur player, Schwartzman kept practicing at Náutico Hacoaj, the social club founded by and for Jews who were barred from the other sports facilities in Bueno Aires in the early 20th century. To help offset the family’s living expenses, Schwartzman’s parents skipped meals. As their youngest child needed to travel farther for tournaments, he and his parents sold rubber bracelets with sports teams logos to the other players and spectators between matches.

Out of the gate Gerasimov served powerfully into Schwartzman’s body, and the Argentinian struggled to read the movement of the ball. He gave up a pair of points quickly. Schwartzman’s righthand fingers are tipped in white tape, presumably to assuage forehand blisters, but as he waits for the next serve something about the way he tugs anxiously at the hem and shoulders of his shirt suggests the fidgety movements of a nervous tailor. The top-row crowd is still finding their seats, and their attention hasn’t settled on the match. These are the day drinkers floating in from the concessions with commemorative Grey Goose cocktail glasses, stacked three and four tall in their hands. They chatter away as they sip down their Honey Deuces, the tournament’s branded, pink-hued response to the Kentucky Derby’s Mint Julep.

But just as the crowd’s mind starts to wonder what’s the meaning of the cheers rising up from Arthur Ashe, where the nearly forgotten Taylor Townsend is making a run against the defending Wimbledon champion Simona Halep, something relaxes in Schwartzman’s demeanor, and his footwork goes fluid. He takes Gerasimov’s serve at deuce a few extra feet back from the baseline and uses the extra half-second to send a big looping forehand over the middle, pushing Gerasimov back. He reads the reply early and with short, quick steps moves in on Gerasimov’s forehand, taking it on the rise to add extra weight to a topspin drive down Gerasimov’s backhand. The shot forces a flat cross-court that Gerasimov has to hit off his back foot with minimal pace. With a burst of half-steps Schwartzman aligns his body parallel to the sideline and comes over the ball with his two-handed backhand, not with much power but hit early and slightly angled. The ball swiftly sails down the line and bounces twice before Gerasimov realizes he’s been played.

After a few more rallies Schwartzman appears more relaxed. He’s not fidgeting. He’s now moving even quicker with fewer steps. Perhaps aware that Gerasimov didn’t digest the pattern of the first big winner, Schwartzman manufactures another backhand down the line with the same three-shot set up, pumping his fist at the winner as the crowd cheers loudly. After Schwartzman breaks Gerasimov’s serve and rapidly accumulates a 3-1 game lead, the crowd is behind him, awakened to the notion of Schwartzman’s style. It’s not a power game but rather one made of speed and anticipation. It lacks pace and relies on spins and sharp angles. It’s not the type of game one sees much of these days.

With the first set nearly in his pocket at 4-1, Schwartzman’s focus softened and Gerasimov chipped away until Schwartzman’s lead shrunk to 5-4 on his serve. Seemingly on a dime, however, at love-fifteen, Schwartzman turned it back on with his best stroke, his forehand. During a long rally, Schwartzman moved Gerasimov back and forth over the baseline. With multiple chances to hit the clean winner, Schwartzman appeared more interested in a strategic play to take chunks out of Gerasimov’s legs, a savvy decision as Gerasimov had already racked up extra hours on court for his qualifying matches.

Schwartzman’s forehand is the kind of stroke no coach would teach but given the Argentinian’s small frame was likely borne by the necessity of experimentation and careful self-study. Leveraging his rapid footwork to position his body into a wide-open stance, Schwartzman lowers himself into a semi-squat to get even lower on the ball, and often takes it late, so that as it bounces and rises up towards his shoulder its met by his racquet at the moment just after his explosive snap of the wrist, the counter-torque up and over the ball ripping it back over the net from an origin point slightly unfamiliar to players used to opponents taking the ball farther out in front of their body. Oddly, Schwartzman generates all his racquet head speed with minimal body motion, lacking the severe torso wind-up other players rely on for pace but which tends to telegraph the angle and spin of the ball for their opponent.

With his body unusually still and his arm cracking the ball in a matter of a split-second, Schwartzman’s forehand is a deceptively strong weapon, and as the repetitive stress of its impact overwhelms Gerasimov, he gives up by tanking the ball into the bottom-third of the net. By game’s end Gerasimov looks spent and exhausted as an energized Schwartzman heads over to his chair up a set.

In the course of any top 100 tennis player’s career there are a series of moments that can just as easily function in the narrative of breaking through to the upper echelon of the sport as they can congeal into a disappointing pattern of squandered potential. Since Schwartzman came on tour in 2010, he’s won three ATP titles, reached as high as 11 in the world, and accumulated a reputation for his speed and distinct style of play, such that during major tournaments he’s called upon by top players like Rodger Federer for tune-up practice sessions, sharpening their game with the quality of his own.

Against the game’s household names Schwartzman has had notable near-victories on some of the biggest stages, including a thrilling five-set match against Novak Djokovic at the 2017 French Open. That same year, Schwartzman pushed through to the second week of the US Open, finally losing in the quarter finals but not before he’d won a decisive match over a fifth-seeded Martin Cilic. These accomplishments and anecdotes could be the backstory of Schwartzman on the precipice of the top ten and perhaps, eventually, a major trophy. They can simultaneously punctuate the mid-stage of a career far more common amongst the men’s tour. The variability of how those moments can be interpreted speaks to the unpredictable winds that push a player’s life on tour in one direction or another, with Schwartzman’s particular case further defined by how well he can turn off and on the levers that led to his fidgety slow start against Gerasimov, or the lull in his concentration in the first set.

Back on court for the second set, Schwartzman was focused, relaxed, and clever. Tied 1-1 in the third game, Schwartzman used his speed to run around Gerasimov’s attempts to force Schwartzman to his backhand side, instead using his forehand to dictate play. Pulling a weary Gerasimov back and forth along the baseline until he made a surprise move into the net, Schwartzman moved in on the ball; as Gerasimov stood frozen inside the service line, the Argentinian feather a drop shot over the net for a winner. The sun began to set back behind the Grandstand, and the heads of those in the top row of Court 7’s southern bleachers cast long, angular shadows over the court’s blue and green paint. At 4-2, Gerasimov mustered a second wind and won back one of Schwartzman’s service breaks. Serving at 40-30, the long-faced, dark-eyed Gerasimov squandered the brief momentum on a double fault.

Schwartzman quickly turned the deuce game into a mismatched forehand duel. Trying to save the break point, an overwhelmed Gerasimov framed the ball and left a sitter in the service box for Schwartzman, who slammed the overhead smash. A moment later, Schwartzman had the second set, 6-2. In the third set, Schwartzman racked up games in rapid succession, sometimes without Gerasimov winning a point. Despite or maybe because he lost the third 6-0, Gerasimov looked relieved to shake Schwartzman’s hand at the net.

After dispatching the American Tennys Sandgrin in straight sets on Saturday, Schwartzman will take the court again at 1:15 pm on Monday in Arthur Ashe Stadium. His opponent will be the aggressive baseline player Alexander Zverev of Germany, the number six seed in the men’s draw. While the odds are heavily against Schwartzman, an upset victory against the 6’6 Zverev would put the Argentine in the quarterfinals of the US Open — an achievement last equaled in 1978 by Brian Gottfried, then the number three ranked player in the world and the highest-ranked Jewish tennis player in modern history. Tablet will be watching.

Sean P. Cooper is a staff writer at Tablet and the author of The Shooter at Midnight: Murder, Corruption, and a Farming Town Divided, forthcoming from Penguin.