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In a game of giants, 5'7" Diego Schwartzman stands out for his unwillingness to let his shortcomings define his game. 

By Stanley Kay
September 03, 2019

If you were designing the perfect male tennis player, what would he look like? And before this devolves into a debate over whether Benoit Paire or Steve Johnson has better facial hair, allow me to be more specific: How tall would he be? 

Tennis players have grown over the last 25 years, and there’s an argument that tall players—not exactly seven-footers like Reilly Opelka, but something closer to Stefanos Tsitsipas (6’4”) or Alexander Zverev (6’6”)—are the future of the sport. On the other hand, the ruling triumvirate of Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal are all in the  6’1”- 6’2” range. Or: taller than your average citizen, but certainly not towering over anyone.  

Either way, you certainly wouldn’t design your protoplayer to look like Diego Schwartzman. Standing all of 5’7”, Schwartzman is often dwarfed on the court—not just by other pros, but by line judges and ballkids. Next to Ivo Karlovic or John Isner? It’s not quite Manute Bol and Muggsy Bogues, but you still can’t help but marvel at the fact that they play the same sport for a living. 

When Schwartzman was 13, a doctor told him he wouldn’t grow past 5’7”. He decided to quit tennis. His mom, as Jose Diego Ramirez Carvajal wrote for the ATP’s website last year, convinced him otherwise. Fourteen years later, Schwartzman is set to face Rafael Nadal in the U.S. Open quarterfinals. It’s his second quarterfinal appearance in Flushing Meadows, and it comes after he ousted Zverev—nearly a foot taller than him—convincingly on Tuesday, beating the No. 6 seed 3–6, 6–2, 6–4, 6–3 in Arthur Ashe Stadium. 

Yes, Zverev played sloppy, racking up 17 (!) double faults and 65 unforced errors. But Schwartzman was relentless. Consider his effort on set point, with the match level at one set apiece and Zverev serving at 4–5. Zverev cracked a 124 mph first serve, which Schwartzman blocked back. Zverev then placed a backhand approach down the line, moving his opponent wide and forcing him to play a backhand on the run. Schwartzman was behind the baseline when Zverev’s backhand volley dropped over the net near the service line; he sprinted forward and tracked it down with enough time to gently place the ball crosscourt. Zverev, using his long frame to reach a ball that would have passed many others, volleyed again, this time with his forehand, but Schwartzman got there again—this time, a backhand volley, which Zverev returned with another volley to Schwartzman’s backhand. Schwartzman scurried to the ball and thumped a backhand winner down the line, past Zverev’s outstretched arm.

When Schwartzman takes down one of the sport’s giants, the David and Goliath analogy feels a bit too on the nose, especially considering the world No. 21’s Jewish heritage—and in fairness to Goliath, his record in battle was far superior to Zverev’s in Grand Slams. But last year, after Schwartzman beat the 6’8” Kevin Anderson at Roland Garros, even the Argentine couldn’t resist the comparison. “I read David and Goliath when I was young in the school, and I just try to think of that when I see Kevin or the guys who are two meters (tall)," Schwartzman said after coming back from two sets down. “I’m not sure how I did. I am saying that and repeating it, because I really don't know how I did it.”

There’s no ideal height for a tennis player, but generally speaking, more of it is a good thing—at least to a certain degree. As TennisAbstract has documented, tall players serve more effectively and hit more aces, but they tend to struggle with returning. The inverse is also true: Shorter players on tour don’t serve particularly well but tend to fare better on returns, perhaps because they have to counteract an inferior serve. Over the last year, Schwartzman has been the third-best returner overall on tour, behind only Nadal and Djokovic. He's third on tour in return games won, trailing those two, and third in winning points on his opponent’s first serve, behind only Nadal and Gael Monfils.

Perhaps we tend to overstate the drawbacks of Schwartzman’s size, but there’s little doubt that Schwartzman’s frame hinders him in some ways. He’s not a particularly formidable server—he ranks 59th in percentage of service games won—and he’s an easy target for a lob. But whatever physical disadvantages Schwartzman might possess, he compensates by playing every point with undisguised vigor, a sense of exertion so palpable it’s impossible not to appreciate the sheer energy required by every shot. He moves exceptionally well, and he throws every bit of his 140 pounds into his groundstrokes.

Schwartzman isn’t likely to become a fixture of the top 10 (he did reach world No. 11 last summer) nor is he likely to ever win a Grand Slam. But he’s capable of producing exhilarating displays of athleticism and shot-making that remind us why we love watching tennis in the first place. It’s pure fun—and, admittedly, somewhat vicariously satisfying—to see him punch up against the tour’s physical behemoths. 

“It’s classic for me,” Schwartzman said of beating taller players after ousting Zverev. “I think for the people, it's helping to be with me on court. They see the small one and the big one, they are going with the small one.”

Sportswriters love to write about the ways athletes are just like us. They like PB&J! They play Settlers of Catan! They like books! We write about these things because they’re relatable, and so much of what we see from athletes feels beyond the realm of possibility. Schwartzman, though—he’s the little guy, and we can all relate to that. Even the tall among us have, at some point, felt small. When Schwartzman plays tennis, he tears down our preconceptions of plausibility. He shows that it doesn’t take a giant to slay one.

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