Diego dares to dream bigger in Paris

 - Dan Imhoff

A career-defining win over Nadal in Rome has Diego Schwartzman primed for a deep run at Roland-Garros.

Diego Schwartzman, Roland-Garros, 8è de finale© Corinne Dubreuil / FFT

The roar from Diego Schwartzman, echoing through Court Centrale at the Foro Italico, speaks volumes.

A sizeable Rome crowd standing to sound its approval typically would have muffled the Argentine’s scream of jubilation at having just beaten Rafael Nadal for the first time in 10 attempts.

But COVID-19 restrictions meant the 28-year-old was left to celebrate with only scarce fans scattered across the stands.

Not that it diminished his achievement one bit.

Before his quarter-final against the nine-time champion at the Masters 1000 event in Rome last week, the 15th-ranked Schwartzman had never beaten any of the Big Three in 17 attempts.

His form upon turning to a truncated clay-court swing was uninspiring to say the least.

Schwartzman boarded a flight to cross the Atlantic, leaving with a meagre 1-2 record from the Cincinnati Masters and US Open, both staged at Flushing Meadows.

The accommodation bill in Kitzbuhel for his first event on clay, too, did not amount to much after winning just one match.

But under humid night conditions in the Italian capital, he defied all prior scripts to upend Nadal and reach his second Masters 1000 semi-final.

“It's really big, you know. I was not playing good before this week, for sure,” Schwartzman said after beating Nadal. “I was playing bad in US. I finished with a lot of pain in my left hand.

“This week I was improving my hand. I was playing the first match without pain. I was improving my tennis. The first match was a good match. The second match was weird. I have moments yesterday.

“And today I played again my best tennis. So tennis many times is crazy.”

His run looked to be coming to an end when 21-year-old Denis Shapovalov led by a break in the deciding set of the semi-finals on Sunday night, but a newfound belief realised in his bogey-shaking win over Nadal helped to avoid the letdown against an opponent he was expected to beat.

Victory in three hours and 15 minutes made him the eighth Argentine to reach a Masters 1000 final, 11 years since Juan Martin del Potro reached his first.

He now had every reason to believe a maiden Grand Slam semi-final in Paris was within reach.

“I was thinking before the match, maybe, OK, I did a good tournament, I have to go to Hamburg, try to get the confidence to Roland-Garros for the end of the year,” Schwartzman said. “But I think I take a lot of confidence … you never know what is going to happen after this.”

The Argentine has faced each of the Big Three at Roland-Garros before. After leading defending champion Novak Djokovic two-sets-to-one only to lose in the third round at Roland-Garros in 2017, he went on to take the opening set against defending champion Nadal in the quarter-finals the following year.

“I respect in every single part of these people, Rafa, Nole, Federer, all the big champions in tennis, because they are the best,” he said.

“But on court, I go and I walk on court trying to not respect them.

Diego Schwarzman, Roland-Garros, 8è de finale© Nicolas Gouhier / FFT

“And many times I did well, but I didn't take the chances to beat them … so it's a big step for me, and maybe for the next matches when I'm going to be close enough, maybe I'm going to take again the chance.”

A first Masters 1000 trophy and a top 10 debut were on the line in the Rome final for Schwartzman.

Regardless of the outcome, the man out to deny him and bidding for a record 36th Masters 1000 title was all praise ahead of the title match.

“Diego played the match of his life,” Djokovic said of beating Nadal.

“I watched it last night. He was so impressive. And that proves that anything is possible, even Nadal who is probably the toughest challenge in our sport, playing Nadal on clay.

“But he managed to win in straight sets, so that proves his quality.”

A fair shout if he has already booked that accommodation in Paris deep into the second week.