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Jewish Tennis Hero Diego Schwartzman Slays the Great Rafael Nadal!

That was two weeks ago, in Rome. But can he do it again today, in the semifinals of the French Open?

Sean Cooper
October 09, 2020
Alex Pantling/Getty Images
Alex Pantling/Getty Images
Alex Pantling/Getty Images
Alex Pantling/Getty Images

No one figured Diego Schwartzman would have gotten any sleep last night. Truth be told, if he was relaxed enough to get some rest it would have been kind of weird, with one more sunrise until the biggest match of his life, the one he’d been waiting for since he was a scrub kid they called El Peque, the short one, hacking his two-hander into shape on the clay courts of Argentina. Even the coaches who saw promise in him then would tell you this was a fantasy, to make it this far, this little boy who eked out maybe a few inches over 5 feet, and manifestly lacked any of the power and strength that are the nominal prerequisites to crack the tennis pro circuit. El Peque had absolutely no business being in the semifinals of the French Open, with an honest to God’s chance to take down his idol, the supremely gifted Rafael Nadal, who, with 12 French Open trophies to his name, is the greatest champion that the tournament has ever known.

Diego knew it, Nadal knew it, everyone at the French knew it. This was the decisive day of Schwartzman’s life in tennis. It was the single best, only really good shot he’d ever get to slay the king of clay on the greatest clay court in the world. It was weird dumb luck.

But best not to think all those things so far outside of Diego’s control. Thinking might lead Diego to question how this was even his life, ticking the hours off as he sat in his hotel suite in Paris, with $8 million in lifetime tour earnings piled high in the bank, as his obscenely sculptural amor de mi vida, Eugenia De Martino, a young model of no particular notoriety, but hawking minor brands nonetheless, splashed her surreal glamour across their hotel suite. It was getting late while she killed time posting Instagram selfies in her bathrobe on the balcony, with the city lit up bright beneath her feet and the Eiffel Tower seemingly within arm’s reach as she nibbled Flynn Paff caramels, sent up by the box, courtesy of the hotel management. What was there to do for this young Jew but to chew down his fingernails and think nervous thoughts, watching his beautiful girlfriend scroll through the thousands of likes on her phone as he tried to avoid the unfathomable fact that destiny had him meeting Nadal in the semis in a matter of hours.

It wasn’t entirely dumb luck that landed Schwartzman here. Not dumb luck that landed him his lady, either. He’s a top-20 player, somehow, despite his size. Even if he’ll never be a household name selling signature merchandise he’s still legit, a global pro, rich, and in the small minority of normal players on a tour full of head cases and nut jobs. It’s a settled fact that Schwartzman is one of the good guys, the good egg other players get sentimental describing. Diego lacks the big ego, all heart and effort with none of the preening bullshit or hurling of his racquet into the water cooler because his serve is on the fritz. At the U.S. Open last month it was Novak Djokovic who slapped a ball in anger after a bad game in the first set of the quarterfinals, a zip line of angst fired off toward the fence that, accidentally or not, happened to smack into the throat of an unsuspecting umpire, crumpling her to the ground. It was so bad that the judges had no choice but to DQ Djokovic on the spot for unsportsmanlike conduct. Novak, a bona fide No. 1, a tour alpha, paid the ultimate price for the kind of rash, thoughtless act that wouldn’t even flash as a blip on the spectrum of possible behavior for the normcore Schwartzman.

Diego actually played like shit at that U.S. Open, slogged out of the first round by an unseeded Englishman. It wasn’t until the clay court season started in earnest the following week that Diego got his act together, tallying up nine wins in 10 matches, with a few good rounds at the warmup event in Australia. He found his groove at the Italian Open, cruising into the quarters, where he put it all together to triumph, for the first time after 10 failed career attempts, against Nadal himself, and on clay no less, in a two-set match. Even Nadal, who was rusty after a six-month layoff, admitted afterward that Diego was definitively the stronger player

So it’s not like he doesn’t have the goods sometimes, especially on the softer, slower surface of clay, where his energetic style of getting everything back over the net, a constant defense and steady backhand, grinds his opponents down, lets him get up to volley where he’s got a magic touch that some learn to simulate after years of drills but the real ones just have in their genetic makeup. Diego’s got it, he’s got the feel to put volleys away winner after winner. But this is the French Open not the Italian, and Nadal’s been the favorite here every year for more than a decade.

Yet the past week was different for Diego at the French, just as it’d been an odd one for Nadal. Diego was playing on an unusually high register and consistently, too, atypically crushing opponents in the first, second, and third round, not just by a little but a wide margin, peeling off sets without letting the other guy even win a single game, in a way that was reminiscent of his run at last year’s U.S. Open, before he ran into Nadal, and gave him a match for his friends and parents, if not the great champion himself, to remember. He was playing like that again now, except better.

The pandemic had made this a different kind of French Open, too. Normally the Open is in the spring, warm and sunny on the famous terre battue, but the coronavirus pushed the event back into the end of the season. The French was never played in the fall but it was now. Temperatures had been as low as the 50s, colder than usual, which meant the ball was playing heavy, a huge advantage for Diego against big hitters like Nadal who rely on the spring and bounce of a light ball to win big points from the baseline. A computer analysis of Nadal’s strokes showed his ball was bouncing 3 inches lower than past French Opens, a rare variability that would suit shorter opponents.

So the ball has literally been bouncing Diego’s way—because of the cold, and also because organizers switched brands from Babolat to Wilson, whose tennis balls early reports indicate are playing even heavier than the climate could account for. But such tweaks of fate can only work so far in Diego’s favor. If he was trying to hone in on something particularly positive this morning it might have been his quarterfinal victory Wednesday night over Dominic Thiem, the world No. 3 and reigning U.S. Open champion who pushed Diego to a seesaw five-hour, five-set marathon of a match on center court. It was a gutsy win for Diego, the kind of match that begets the rare momentum that the Argentine would need to topple Nadal on his home turf.

Nadal no doubt slept soundly the whole night. Why wouldn’t he? Meeting tiny Diego Schwartzman in the semifinals of the French Open is about as cushy a berth as a 12-time champion could allow himself to dream about. But if anything could get under Nadal’s skin, it’s the unshakable sense that this French Open is an outlier.

Nadal is a famous obsessive who won’t step on certain court lines. He has elaborate pre-service routines. He has rituals for where he puts his water bottle next to his chair. A socially distanced tournament with no fans, with weird balls that don’t bounce high enough, played six months late, in record low temperatures is enough broadcast noise to distort his finely tuned mental wavelength and make the hairs prickle on the back of his neck. It’s possible to imagine Nadal didn’t sleep so well, or that he woke up out of sorts, or that, when he steps out onto the familiar but eerily silent center court at Roland Garros stadium, his racket won’t feel right in his hand. For Diego Schwartzman, playing some of the best tennis of his life, it might all add up to the rarest of conditions, enough at least to make him more than an underdog against the king of his sport.

The Schwartzman-Nadal semifinal of the French Open begins at 8:50 ET. Watch here.

Sean Patrick Cooper is a journalist who has contributed narrative features and essays to The New Republic, n+1, Bloomberg Businessweek, and elsewhere. His first book, The Shooter at Midnight: Murder, Corruption, and a Farming Town Divided will be published in April 2024 by Penguin.