Diego Schwartzman is one of the shortest tennis players on the men’s tour, but like the famous footballer he was named after the Argentine has made a point not to be defined by his size.
Affectionately known as “El Peque” (“shorty”), Schwartzman is 5ft 7in (1.70m) and the smallest player in the world’s top 50, but he is scaling new heights at the French Open. The 28-year-old reached the last four of a Major for the first time on Tuesday, defeating US Open champion and close friend Dominic Thiem in a five-hour epic.
“I’m still in the tournament and I really want to keep winning,” said Schwartzman, having won his first Grand Slam quarter-final after three previous failures.
“This win is very important for me. In the second and third sets, I was going a little crazy and I was screaming at myself because I had so many chances.”
Schwartzman accepts he will never be blessed with the serve of towering giants John Isner or Ivo Karlovic, but is quick to put his shortcomings into perspective.
His Polish maternal great-grandfather escaped a train heading for a Nazi concentration camp during the Holocaust when a coupling broke apart, leaving a section of the train behind as the other carried on to its destination.
After fleeing he brought his family to Argentina by boat, arriving speaking Yiddish but no Spanish. His father’s ancestors took a similar route as they emigrated from Russia.
“I don’t know 100% of the history,” said Schwartzman. “(But) they escaped from the war. That is the story, the big story. That’s how the Schwartzman and the Dykes family, surname of my mum, started in Argentina.”
Boom and bust
His parents suffered travails of their own around the time he was born, as a once thriving family business reliant on imported goods was badly hit by economic reforms.
Schwartzman, named after 1986 World Cup hero Diego Maradona, played football as a child and is fan of Buenos Aires giants Boca Juniors but chose to prioritise tennis.
He and his mother sold rubber bracelets left over from their clothing and jewellery company with the names and logos of popular football teams to help pay for travel expenses, competing to see who could sell the most.
Trips to Colombia, Venezuela and Ecuador for regional events often left a teenage Schwartzman, travelling alone, in tears on the plane but ultimately strengthened his resolve.
He was far from a touted youngster, his only junior Grand Slam appearance in qualifying at the 2010 US Open ended in the first round and left him riddled with self-doubt.
But Schwartzman has steadily built himself into a quiet contender through years of graft and determination, quashing any reservations about his ability to compete with the best.
He lists his favourite surface as clay, and favourite tournament as Roland Garros, but faces the tallest of orders against a man who has made the French Open his own, his idol Rafael Nadal.
“Rafa is the legend here, is the owner of this place almost,” Schwartzman said of his semi-final showdown with 12-time champion Nadal.
While the odds will be stacked against him, Schwartzman knows Nadal is not entirely invincible having beaten the Spaniard last month when he made the final of the Italian Open in Rome.
“If I see the history, I’m 10-1 down. I’m not sure if I’m going to have a lot of confidence. But, yeah, I know this week that I can beat him. That’s the important thing.”
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