Morning all, and as Shaun Ryder says, Happy Monday(s)! Hope your respective weekends were swell. Mine was OK, if fairly uneventful. My girlfriend was sick so I spent most of the time shuttling chicken soup and Hot Toddies to and from the bedroom and trying – as far as humanly possible in a one bedroom flat – to avoid any kind of physical contact. Something must have worked (probably the whiskey) as I am happy to report that she seems more sprightly today.
In between my nursing duties I also managed to catch some of the sport that was going on. Despite doing an alarmingly accurate impression of Arsenal Under Unai Emery, Arsenal Under Mikel Arteta somehow managed to grind out a 2-1 win over West Ham thanks to a late Eddie Nketiah goal. It was a vital three points but to be honest I didn’t feel like writing about such a dire performance – the less said about it the better.
And in golf Bryson DeChambeau claimed his maiden major title by winning the US Open in New York. The 27-year-old American, who shares his name with a French vacuum cleaner, romped to a comfortable six-shot victory over 54-hole leader Matt Wolff at Winged Foot last night to become the fourth consecutive first-time major champion. Bon travail.
What most caught my eye, however, were the semifinals at the ATP Masters 1000 tennis tournament in Rome. Novak Djokovic fell behind early against Norwegian Casper Ruud but, in typical Djokovic fashion, gradually wore his opponent down and came through in two tough sets. Next it was the turn of Diego Schwartzman and Denis Shapovalov.
On paper it was by far the more appealing match. Canadian Shapovalov, the 12th seed, is one of the most exciting young players on the tour who plays an attacking, hard-hitting game with his heart on his sleeve. Eighth seed Schwartzman, meanwhile, is a classic clay-court counter-puncher, extremely solid from the back of the court and stingy with his unforced errors. It was the classic attack vs defence contest and it didn’t disappoint. In a fascinating see-saw tussle, it was Schwartzman who emerged victorious over his talented opponent in a third-set tiebreak after 3h15m on court. Tomorrow’s final with Djokovic will be the Argentine’s first at Masters 1000 level and a reward for years of hard graft on tour.
I say years of hard graft because Schwartzman hasn’t had anything easy in his tennis career so far. Looking at the statistics, his career is a tale of constant, steady improvement rather than stratospheric rise. The 28-year-old only started playing regularly at ATP level in 2014, finishing the year at number 61. He stagnated for a couple of years before making a big jump in 2017 when he reached the quarterfinals at the Monte Carlo and Canada Masters, and the US Open, eventually finishing at number 26. The following year he reached his second Grand Slam quarterfinal at the French Open and claimed the biggest title of his career to date at the ATP 500 event in Rio. And last year, another milestone as he made the semifinals at the Rome Masters, a second US Open quarterfinal and a year-end career-high ranking of 13.
His achievements are all the more noteworthy when you consider that Schwartzman, standing at just 5ft 7in, has been at a disadvantage from day one. In some sports, you can get away with being vertically-challenged. Leo Messi is just 5″7. Shane Williams and Jason Robinson, at 5″7 and 5″8 respectively, were two of the best rugby players of their generation. Sachin Tendulkar, arguably the greatest cricketer of all time, is just 5″5. The list goes on.
Tennis is different. The serve is the most important shot for all tennis players because it is the only one that is not affected by the opponent’s actions. That’s why an ace is called a “free point” – the returner is completely helpless to prevent it. And height is an undeniable advantage for the server, offering him/her a better trajectory with which to generate power and a wider margin for error. That every member of the current top-10 is at least 6ft tall is no coincidence.
Schwartzman’s serve is little more than a point-starter and so he is at an immediate disadvantage every time he steps onto court against someone taller than him (which is 99% of the time). While most other top players expect to get one or two free points on serve per game, the Argentine is lucky to get a handful in an entire match. To win matches, therefore, he has to compensate by winning more than his due of return games and by constantly outmaneuvering his opponent in rallies.
He does so expertly. Using his slight frame to his advantage, his lateral movement along the baseline is superb and he has excellent feel in the forecourt on drop shots and volleys. On his favourite stroke – the two-handed backhand – he leans in using all of his body weight to generate fantastic power. Returning, he wastes no time in getting on the front foot or attacking the second serve, regularly claiming one of the top five positions in terms of return games won out of all his peers on tour. From a fan’s perspective, Schwartzman’s style makes for a refreshing antidote to the big serve, big forehand combination seen all too often on tour these days.
So can he become the first person in 2020 to beat Djokovic tomorrow? He certainly has a chance. Although he has lost all four previous matches against the Serb, he tends to fair best on clay, taking the world number one to five sets at the 2017 French Open and to another decider in Rome last year. And Djokovic hasn’t looked at his imperious best so far this week as he was seriously tested against Krajinovic, Koepfer and Ruud in the previous three rounds.
The smart money, however, has to be on the top seed. He has an uncanny knack of saving his best performances for finals and he should be the fresher player of the two players having needed little more than two hours to beat Ruud. However, I’d love Schwartzman to do it and will be backing him all the way. Vamos Peque!
Right, that’s all for now. Have yourselves a good start to the week and I’ll be back here on Wednesday.