“I think at the end of this night, I deserve to win”
In short, this was the best Diego Schwartzman could have described his gritty five-set, five-hour win at the French Open to reach his first Grand Slam semi-final.
On the other end was Dominic Thiem, two-time Roland Garros finalist, one-time Grand Slam champion, third seed, a good friend and doubles partner. And even the vanquished shared the sentiment: “Diego fully deserves it.”
On paper and for the most part of the match, it was the younger but more experienced Austrian who was in the lead. He snatched the second and third sets when his opponent failed to close it out. But look closer and you’d see that despite the many stumbles, it was the Argentine who had the match on his racquet. He dictated the points and the flow for the most part and took chances which paid off in the long run as he won 7-6 (1), 5-7, 6-7 (6), 7-6 (5), 6-2.
The courage and composure Schwartzman showed was a solid template of how to win matches against the best. He is 28 years old, has just three ATP titles and has never broken into the top 10 of the ATP rankings. The world No 14 is often talked about for his height: who at 5 feet 7 inches is very short in the tall order of modern tennis and is ever so often on the receiving end of jokes from peers.
But at the baseline with the racquet in his hand, especially on clay courts, he knows how to make his game talk. He has a limited serve but excellent retrieving skills, superb court coverage and the heart to take chances with variety, even at the net. When he can do all this with consistency, he can be a threat, especially given weather conditions and the new heavier balls in Paris which slow down things.
In the pandemic-interrupted 2020, he has seemingly rejigged his trajectory and in the last few months he notched his first win over Rafael Nadal, on clay, which was his first top 10 win, reached his first Masters 1000 final, losing to Novak Djokovic at the Italian Open, and is set to make his top 10 debut with his first Major semis.
But as both protagonists proclaimed, this win feels long and well deserved, just like the marathon match against Thiem – a player who has never competed in a five-hour match on clay before, played four straight semi-finals and only been beaten by Nadal or Djokovic in the last four years at Roland Garros.
A match between in-form and talented clay-courters was always going to be a classic grind. For the first four sets, it was almost impossible to separate the two in the games or points. Even though the third seed looked exhausted and even when the 12th seed tightened up on crucial points.
The three tiebreaks in five sets indicated, it felt like a dogfight with no way of retaining momentum with as many as 19 breaks of serve and little chance of establishing a lead. Both players had chances to close out games and indeed the sets having come to within just two points of doing it, but very few of those chances were capitalised on as both players continued the gruelling groundstrokes warfare.
After a keenly-fought first set where Thiem had the first break, Schwartzman blitzed the tiebreak 7-1. After 71 minutes of shoulder-busting tennis, Thiem took the second set 7-5. After saving set point at 4-5, Thiem had the crucial two sets to one lead with a tenacious tiebreak. After failing to serve out the fourth, Schwartzman forced a decider in a tense tiebreak.
In the fifth set, at the French Open which is the last Grand Slam to stick to the no tiebreak in the decider, it felt like this match would go on for much longer given their energy levels and absolute commitment to the grind. But in the end, it was Thiem who ran out of gas and was broken to love after a flurry of unforced errors that clouded the fifth set. It was understandable given he came off a five-setter against Hugo Gaston and was playing another Slam two weeks after his first Major win at the US Open. But Thiem’s fading end takes away no credit from the relentlessness of his opponent.
Schwartzman, who was the only player in the match to win four straight games, held his serve and broke to claim what is the biggest Major win of her career. It was impressive given how he had choked up in the big moments before in the match. But it was also a just reward for smart tennis.
The 12th seed kept going to Thiem’s backhand and cramped him in rallies. The slice was effective but only to an extent as his expansive forehand seemed cramped. The Argentine’s work at the net was brave and earned him some tough points – 44 of the 71 times he came forward – even though Thiem won more passing shots.
The extra ball in play is a hallmark of all good clay-court players, indeed they were evenly matched in the rallies over nine shots. But against someone more experienced, the placement is sometimes more important than the painstaking effort. And that is where the Argentine excelled: constant attacking on the backhand, winning the short and medium rallies with cleverly executed dropshots and drop volleys backed by the unrelenting belief that he could do it, even in the fifth set.
The belief could be useful as Schwartzman gears up for a rematch with Nadal in the semi-finals. Against the reigning king of Roland Garros, the Argentine will need much more to win but he has proved that he definitely has enough to make it a match.