At 28, Diego Schwartzman has apparently reinvented himself over the course of the last month. Just a few weeks ago in Rome, he upended Rafael Nadal for the first time in ten career meetings in the quarterfinals. He lost in the final of that tournament to Novak Djokovic.
Buoyed by that stellar showing on the red clay, Schwartzman moved swiftly and efficiently through the draw at Roland Garros to set up another blockbuster quarterfinal appointment, this one with Dominic Thiem. Facing a stern challenge in trying to overcome one of the sport’s biggest hitters and finest clay-court players, Schwartzman ultimately met that moment after squandering a multitude of chances against the US Open champion.
But, in the end, after being on the verge of leading two sets to love and later having a set point in the third—and losing both the second and third sets—he gallantly rescued himself down the stretch and came away with a magnificent, 7-6 (1), 5-7, 6-7 (6), 7-6 (5), 6-2 triumph lasting five hours and eight minutes. It was a milestone victory for the Little Big Man of tennis, as he struck down the 2018 and 2019 Roland Garros finalist; the indefatigable Argentine prevented Thiem from reaching a fifth consecutive French Open semifinal. Across the previous four years, only Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic had ousted the Austrian on the terre battue.
Diego Schwartzman has now defeated two of the world's best clay-courters on their turf over the last month. (Getty Images)
The confrontation was played out on another cold afternoon and evening at the world’s premier clay-court event. The two extraordinary gladiators also played most of the match amidst burdensome winds. The conditions could not have been more demanding, and yet both men dealt with the competitive landscape and their fluctuating fortunes honorably.
The first four sets all hung in the balance and could have gone either way. In the early stages, Thiem was somewhat listless and he found no formula to impose himself, as Schwartzman sent a barrage of shots to the Austrian’s backhand. Thiem was going to the slice off that side much too frequently, and seldom created openings to unleash his lethal inside-out forehand. Schwartzman was predominantly his usual sturdy self from the backcourt, calm and resolute, sound and cagey.
And yet, Thiem was ahead 4-2 in the first set despite his lack of energy or inspiration. Schwartzman took the next two games, but he was in serious difficulty when he served at 4-5 and 5-6. In both games, Thiem was two points away from taking the set when he reached 0-30 on the Argentinian’s serve. Thiem wasted those chances with clusters of unprovoked mistakes. They went to a tie-break. Schwartzman was flawless in that sequence while Thiem unravelled off the ground. The No. 13 seed prevailed, 7-1.
On they went to the second set. Although Thiem led 3-1, his form remained unconvincing. Schwartzman took a 5-4 lead after surviving a 0-40 deficit in an eight deuce ninth game. At that juncture, Thiem seemed almost disconsolate as he served in the tenth game. He was so emotionally and physically spent that he felt his only recourse was to employ the drop shot.
It was as if he had almost given up. But at 15-30 in the tenth game, Schwartzman flagrantly let Thiem off the hook. Thiem’s drop shot sat up invitingly for the Argentinian, but somehow Schwartzman netted a sitter of a forehand from close range. Thiem held on for 5-5, and soon took the next two games to level the contest at one set all.
Even when he was winning, Dominic Thiem wasn't his normal, aggressive self. (Getty Images)
By this point, well over two hours had elapsed. Thiem had been given an unexpected reprieve by an opponent who had been far too conscious of the scoreline. The realization that he was so close to a two-set lead and an almost certain journey to a first ever semifinal at a Grand Slam tournament crippled Schwartzman.
Nonetheless, the Argentine stuck to his game plan and regrouped admirably in the third set. Schwartzman led 5-3, but once more he got exceedingly tight in a crucial corner of the match. Thiem broke back at love as Schwartzman made four consecutive unforced errors. In the following game, however, Schartzman advanced to set point with Thiem serving at 4-5, 30-40. With the wind at his back, Schwartzman inexplicably drove a topspin forehand down the line that landed long. It was a glaring unforced error.
Thiem traveled back to 5-5 before the two players exchanged breaks. With the set settled in another tiebreak, Thiem took leads of 5-1 and then 6-4. The unwavering Austrian came through on his third set point, putting away an easy overhead emphatically, to take the tiebreak 8-6 and two-sets-to-you one lead.
When Thiem built a 2-0 30-15 lead in the fourth set with his best aggressive execution off the ground, he seemed to have turned the corner at last. But Schwartzman was undismayed and unswerving. He swept four games with rhythmic precision from the baseline; serving for the set at 5-4, he led 40-0. Somehow, though, Thiem managed to collect five points in a row to rally for 5-5, saving two of the three set points with spectacular winners.
With Schwartzman serving at 5-6, Thiem made a concerted push to end the battle right then and there. Twice he was two points away from a hard-earned four-set victory. Yet Schwartzman somehow fended off his rival and held on. For the third time, the two protagonists were engaged in a tie-break. This one was well played on both sides of the net, but Thiem failed to deliver the knockout blow when it was there for the taking.
At 3-1, he netted a backhand down the line that he had been executing neatly until that moment. That mistake was enormously consequential. Nevertheless, the Austrian led 4-3 and was serving the next two points. He lost both with forehand unforced errors. Thiem once more moved within two points of a fifth straight semifinal birth at Roland Garros when he drove a gorgeous topspin backhand down the line to set up a forehand drop-shot winner.
Unflustered, Schwartman went to a tactic that served him well all through the contest. He approached the net on the Thiem backhand, read the response and made a backhand drop volley winner. For the fourth time, Schwartzman was one point away from a fifth set. Thiem had neither the gumption nor the inner belief to save himself another time, driving a backhand down the line wide. Schwartzman sealed the fourth set seven points to five in the tie-break.
That was essentially the straw that broke the camel’s back. Thiem had thrown his heart and should into securing the fourth set. Now he was spent. The 27-year-old tenuously stayed with his adversary until 2-2 in the fifth set, but it was unmistakably apparent that Schwartzman was sprightlier in every way. He captured four games in a row and 16 of 21 points to close out the match masterfully. In his 300th ATP tour-level match, Schwartzman displayed the resilience that has carried him across a distinguished career, reminding everyone that he is a singularly remarkable character in the world of tennis.
He succeeds because he has one of the three best returns of serve on tennis, because he has a large heart and a limitless supply of determination, because he covers the court with so much alacrity. With his remarkable run to the penultimate round of the world’s premier clay court tournament, Schwartzman is guaranteed a place in the world’s top ten for the first time next week.
Asked about the furious fight he had made to salvage a win that might have come much sooner and could have elude him altogether, Schartzman said, “The second set and the third set I had a lot of opportunities, also easy opportunities. That’s why I was really upset, really angry with myself at that time in the second and the third when I was close to winning those sets. I couldn’t do it.
“It was a tough situation because in the fourth set he started playing so well. I did the comeback and was serving 5-4, 40-0. He played three unreal points, amazing points because he’s one of the best and he can do it. At that time I was thinking, ‘Okay, come on, today is not going to happen...
“I played an amazing tie-break in the fourth. In the fifth I was doing the same thing, being solid. At the end I think I physically finished better than him, so that’s why I won.”
He won for many reasons. Thiem was fragile mentally and physically at different stages of the showdown after his exhausting five-set, round of 16 duel with the wild card Hugo Gaston. But the fact remains that the Austrian put himself in a position to win. In the end, however, Schwartzman reached back with all of his resources and refused to lose. That was no mean feat.