Editor's note: Just before the US Open, 2017 International Tennis Hall of Fame inductee Steve Flink spoke at length with Diego Schwartzman, currently ranked 33rd in the world. The 25-year-old Argentine entered this summer with an 0-13 record against Top 10 players; in 2016, he lost in the first round of all four majors.
But the diminutive, 141-pound Schwartzman's fortunes have changed. In Montreal, he defeated world No. 7 Dominic Thiem and reached the quarterfinals. On Friday, Schwartzman—the No. 29 seed at the US Open—reached the fourth round of a Slam for the first time. He did so by defeating 2014 US Open champion Marin Cilic, 4-6, 7-5, 7-5, 6-4.
"The last game was terrible," Schwartzman said on court after it was over, referring to the break points he needed to save at 5-4 after having already failed to serve out the match at 5-2.
Schwartzman is an entertaining on the mic and on the court, as the crowds in Flushing Meadows have seen. For much more about this exciting player, read on.
When I spoke on the phone not long ago with Diego Schwartzman, there was only one way to start the conversation. I asked this diminutive player—who stands 5'7", weighs 141 pounds yet more than compensates with an exceedingly large supply of determination—how he had managed to rise into the upper ranks of his sport while surrounded by much taller and stronger colleagues? As I write, he is stationed at a career best No. 33 in the world, performing at a level he has never attained before, having the time of his life. And yet, almost every time he steps on the court, the physical cards seem to be stacked against him. How does he manage to thrive under these demanding circumstances as a tough little guy in a big man's world of tennis?
"When I started to play," he responds, "it was always like this for me, like it is right now. Always I was the smaller guy on the tour. When I was growing up in the junior tournaments in Argentina, and when I start to play Futures and Challengers, it was always like this. So I just try to focus on improving many things with my legs and my tennis on the baseline. I try to be more solid. I know I can't serve really fast or hit many aces in my matches but always this was true. I think I have improved many things. I am not thinking about my height in the matches."
Schwartzman speaks softly yet forcefully about what will be required for him to move to a loftier level in his trade. He places the serve at the top of his list of priorities. "I need to be more regular [consistent] with my serve," he asserts. "This year I have been serving a really good percentage with some aces, but I need to improve it even more. The second ball after the serve is also important against the big guys. I need to take control of the point because the top 10 or 15 guys are playing really fast on the court. I have to do that as much as I can."
This thoughtful fellow started out on the pro tour as a young teenager who was just trying to find his way. He was playing Futures events at 15 and 16 years of age against opponents much older, wilier and considerably stronger. What are his recollections about that?
"It was good for me to start when I was young," he reflects. "My family could not pay for me to play the tournaments that are far away and all of the junior tournaments in Argentina are really far away. My family could not send me there to those tournaments so I started to play Futures at home at 15 or 16 and every guy I played was 25 or maybe sometimes 10 years more than me. I think I improved a lot because you have no chance if you don't. You need to improve every match and every week. That was really nice for me in that time as I tried to get better."
The progress for Schwartzman came steadily over the years. At the end of 2009 when he was 17, the Argentinian was ranked No. 1029. A year later, he had moved to No. 417. He climbed to No. 369 at the conclusion of 2011. One season later, he stood 200 places higher at No. 169. From there, he went to No. 118 for 2013 and No. 61 in 2014. He slipped to No. 88 a year later but closed the curtain last year at No. 52. It has all come about through persistence, dedication and resilience. But was he ever discouraged in his early professional years by tough setbacks?
He replies, "When you are young it is not easy to accept the losses. But I was okay. When I started to play professional tennis I improved step by step and I was getting better and feeling good on the court. I was focussed on the court and doing everything I could outside the court to be better. That is really important when you are young."
It was in 2014 that Schwartzman touched his first significant milestone by reaching the top 100 in the world. What did that mean to him?
"Yes, it is really important when you can do that goal to be in the top 100," he says. "In Roland Garros in 2014 I passed the qualies and then won my first round. My second round was against Roger [Federer]. So here was my first time in the top 100, first time playing Roger and first time in the second round at a Grand Slam. It was a big week for me."
That was all the more rewarding in light of the fact that he had missed an opportunity to crack the top 100 at the end of the previous season. As Schwartzman explains, "In the last tournament of 2013 I had a chance to make the top 100. I had four match points [against Pedro Sousa at a Challenger in Ecuador]. I was really nervous in that match. I can't even move after the match points. I started to have cramps. I was really disappointed. I was serving for the match and I can't win. I finished like 110 that year [it was actually 118] but then I just went on holidays. After a while and more months I was able to reach that goal of top 100. That was really nice for me. For all of us as players, reaching the top 100 gives you a lot of confidence. It gives to you many things about your tennis. I want to be in the top 100 for many years more."
Schwartzman has that fond recollection of his Roland Garros clash with Federer [Federer won 6-3, 6-4, 6-4] but he has also twice taken on Novak Djokovic at the majors, including a five-set skirmish won by the Serbian this year at Roland Garros. And he lost to Rafael Nadal at the 2015 U.S. Open. The Spaniard had to work hard to win that one, 7-6 (5), 6-3, 7-5, in the second round. What did Schwartzman learn from those collective experiences?
"Sometimes when you look at the draw and you see you are playing Roger, Rafa or Nole," he muses, "you are really disappointed. But I think after a few years I felt more confidence in myself. I think I learned so much from the matches with these big guys. They do everything so well inside the court. I also learned that they are just normal persons outside the court, but inside the court to do it like them is maybe impossible."
After leading two sets to one this year at Roland Garros in the third round against Djokovic, Schwartzman was beaten in five sets by the defending champion. He recalls, "That was really tough. Nole stayed on the court really focused. Maybe he wasn't playing really good in that match but he didn't think like he was losing against a younger player. He stayed on the court quiet, doing what he needed to do to beat me. He did really well. What those players do is just stay focussed to beat the opponent at all times and that is really tough to do. They do that many times."
Shifting his thoughts to the Federer match at Roland Garros three years ago and his contest with Nadal at the U.S. Open two years ago, Schwartzman says, "I enjoy a lot that match with Roger. It was really nice for me and amazing just to see everything Roger does inside the court. It is even more impressive when you see it the way I did. With Rafa, he is such a big opponent. You have to be really prepared physically and mentally to play against Rafa. He is amazing."
Surprisingly for someone who grew up in Argentina and competed so often on clay, Schwartzman may well be better on hard courts. It is not entirely illogical, though. Lleyton Hewitt ruled at the U.S. Open on hard courts in 2001, won Wimbledon on the grass the following year, and made it to the final of the 2005 Australian Open on hard courts as well. He, too, was a little guy with a big heart. But Hewitt seemed to thrive on faster courts, which enhanced his serve and allowed him to hit through the court more easily.
Perhaps that is the case with Schwartzman as well. When asked if his hard court game is superior to the way he performs on clay courts, Schwartzman responds, "I don't know why, but I think sometimes on the hard court it is easier for me to win my service games. The return to me is the same on hard courts as on clay but the hard courts helps me with my serve. That is the key to why last year and this year I play always good on hard courts. When the court is a little bit fast I feel great with my serve and it gives me confidence to play well."
Another thing adding fuel to his self conviction is his growing capacity to win hard fought and very close matches when the outcome is in doubt right down to the wire. In reaching the quarterfinals of Montreal a few weeks ago, he overcame the promising young American Reilly Opelka, 6-3, 6-7 (2), 6-4, saved four match points to oust Dominic Thiem and rallied ferociously to beat the swiftly ascending Jared Donaldson of the U.S., 0-6, 7-5, 7-5. Depleted from that string of triumphs, he lost a three-set quarterfinal to Robin Haase, but that week was encouraging on numerous levels.
Explaining why he has made strides as a match player in close encounters, Schwartzman says, "I am just trying to focus on the next point and not thinking about how I am playing in those close matches. I am taking it point by point and game by game. I feel I am improving a lot in that way. In that match against Donaldson when I was 5-5 in the last set I just tried to put every ball in the court. I have a lot of confidence now when it is close. When I lost to Haase I was not focussed on every point the way I had been in the other matches. I was talking too much with my team. The key is to be quiet on the court and play every point. You never know when your chances will come."
He has an accomplished team guiding him through the rigors of the tour, including primary coach Juan Ignacio Chela, and fitness trainer/coach Martiniano Orazi. Schwartzman likes hearing different voices and sometimes welcomes contrasting points of view.
He clarifies, "The coaching is important on the matches and it is really important for me to have the view of how they are watching the matches from outside the court. Sometimes you can't see things while you are playing or you are talking too much. I am always changing things with who is with me at the tournaments. Sometimes it is Chela and sometimes the physical coach. I am always changing and change is good. It is good to sometimes have different views from the people working with me."
It is also beneficial to Schwartzman to enjoy the camaraderie he has developed with different players who share his love of the profession and the life they lead. One of those people is Donaldson, who has come into his own recently and is making a significant rise in the rankings.
"When Jared was much younger he was in Argentina practicing with my physical coach in Buenos Aires. We did one or two practices together. He is doing really well now and winning matches every week. At that time when he was in Buenos Aires I didn't know he was going to play really good like he is now. He speaks a bit of Spanish and we joke about things. He knows my team guys. We have a good relationship."
Another relationship that has developed nicely for Schwartzman is the one he shares with Grigor Dimitrov. Dimitrov imploded when he played Schwartzman in the final of Istanbul last year. Thoroughly frustrated by his inability to close out the Argentinian in the final, Dimitrov had an emotional meltdown, smashing his racquet three times, and getting disqualified with a game penalty when trailing 0-5 in the final set. Schwartzman had trailed by a set and 5-2 before prevailing, 6-7, 7-6, 6-0.
Asked if he felt badly for Dimitrov when the Bulgarian lost his cool, Schwartzman answered, "He is my friend now. He had been in a few other finals before Istanbul and he was serving for the match in the second set against me. I came back and after that he was nervous so he lost his mind a bit and started to break his racquets. For me it was a little disappointing because I want to play in my first title the match point. But after Grigor and I speak about it in the locker room and it was okay. He was just nervous and disappointed with himself. He is a big guy outside the court. It was just weird what happened. We are friends and since that match we have practiced a lot and we are always doing things outside the court. He is a good guy."
I wondered which players may have influenced Schwartzman the most over the years? He replied, "When I started playing in Argentina we have a lot of players in Grand Slam finals, playing the Masters 1000 tournaments and the Davis Cup final. For the young players like me it was really nice to start to play tennis at that time. We had Nalbandian, Coria, Monaco, Gaudio and Zabaleta and a lot of guys. But Monaco was the biggest influence for me. When I was 15 and 16 we practiced whenever he was in Argentina. After a few years I started to be with him in the same tournaments, maybe playing doubles. He was really nice to me, like a big brother. I am really grateful to him."
For probably a number of reasons, Schwartzman has never been all that close to Juan Martin del Potro, but he admires the big man a lot. Schwartzman says, "When I am starting to play the tournaments he was injured for two years and now that he has come back we don't always play in the same tournaments. He is a good guy outside the courts. We have a good relationship but not more than that."
About former player and Davis Cup captain Martin Jaite, Schwartzman says, "He helped me a lot with my tennis and everything inside the court. He was the captain of the Davis Cup for many years and he put me as the fifth player on the team against Israel. He is a really good guy and I always thank him for helping me so much."
One player Schwartzman has always respected as a top of the line professional and an earnest craftsman is David Ferrer. Earlier in the year, he defeated Ferrer in Miami. Schwartzman says, "It was an amazing match for me. He is my friend outside the court and we speak a lot. He is a good guy. I have watched him and seen videos of him and how he is playing because like me he is not one of the taller guys. I watch him to try to do things like he is doing on the court."
Diego Schwartzman spoke candidly with me for nearly half an hour. I asked him near the end of the interview where he thinks he can go in the rankings from his current location in and around the top 35.
"I need to improve many things," he concludes. "I need to be more regular as I said on the serve. I am trying to be more regular in the big tournaments like the U.S. Open coming up. I just need to have many good weeks. I hope to be in the top 30 soon and to end the year in the top 30."
It is a goal that is attainable for this 25-year-old who seems deeply committed to what he is doing. The guess here is that he will end the year among the 25 best players in his profession. With every fiber of his being, Schwartzman will try to meet that lofty standard.
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