Slinging in the Rain – Running With the Bull in Paris

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Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Bill Simons

He’s only 5’6”, a full foot shorter than his famous Argentinian countryman Juan Martin del Potro. He’s only reached the quarterfinals of one Grand Slam – the 2017 US Open. But no matter, Diego Schwartzman was slinging in the rain against a man who had a 83-2 record at Roland Garros.

The phrase giant slayer came to mind. And there has been no greater giant on clay than Rafa Nadal. Certainly his quarterfinal match against Schwartzman would only be a modest speed bump en route to his preordained 11th title in Paris. Yes, Schwartzman has risen to No. 11, but Nadal had beaten the Argentine in each of their five meetings, including a four-set win at the Aussie Open.

But right from the start in the first game, Diego had four break points. He didn’t convert any of them. Still, the ten-minute game was a marker. This would not be a cakewalk for the King of Clay.

Schwartzman is a wonder. He scampers and then explodes into shots. Plus, he’s got touch. His drop shots are lethal. And he’s patient, he doesn’t panic. In the fourth round he was down by two sets to Kevin Anderson and the 6’8’’ giant was twice serving for the match. But Schwartzman prevailed.

In the first set Schwartzman sprinted with frenetic speed and returned serve with depth and confidence. He took the initiative over an error-prone Rafa. Schwartzman hit out and broke serve three times to score a shock 6-4 win.

In the second set we saw Schwartzman blast inside-out forehands and finesse pinpoint drop shots. His onslaught continued as he broke serve twice to take a 3-2 lead. But here, in the one Grand Slam that doesn’t have a roof, rain descended and the match was stopped for nearly an hour.

Everyone knew Nadal would now have to turn it on and show the very ferocity that is his signature. In other words, he had to hit out, find weight and depth in his shots, serve better and call on his veteran experience. Twice in the past few weeks Nadal has benefited from timely rain delays. In Rome he used a third-set stoppage to turn around his Italian Open final match against Sascha Zverev and gain the coveted title. And in the first round in Paris, he was struggling against the hard-hitting lucky loser Simone Bolelli, but again a delay helped him mightily.

Then when play continued today, as if on cue, Rafa emerged in ‘Vamos mode.’ Totally aggressive in the misty, heavy conditions, he grabbed the soggy match by its throat, won three straight games and was up 5-3, 30-15. He was just two points from claiming the second set. Despite the rain, it would have made sense to play out the game and presumably leave matters at a set all.

But not much in this match had made sense. The rain was too much, the battle was interrupted. French fans booed, their whistles loud. Play will continue Thursday. All of this begs the question: will the French Open ever build a roof?

•••••

Few tennis players have had more intense happenings in their lives than Maria Sharapova. Her family survived Chernobyl. Her dad brought her to America as a kid with $700 in his pocket and would take Maria on his bicycle to the Bollettieri Academy. She had a dazzling coming out when she won Wimbledon in 2004. She said when she played on clay she was like “a cow on ice.” Yet, two of her five Slam titles would be on the sticky stuff at Roland Garros.

Courageously, she came back from a wretched shoulder injury. But then she was suspended for 15 months for drug use. All the while she’s got her own candy company, she published a controversial biography, “Unstoppable” (which Serena said was “100 percent hearsay”), and has earned millions in endorsements.

That’s a lot of drama. But rarely have we seen two marquee encounters with less drama than Maria’s fourth round and quarterfinal matches. Her walkover victory over Serena, who had to withdraw due to a pec injury, was one of the biggest non-matches in memory. “The un-rivalry goes on,” muttered one cynic in the press room.

Today, Sharapova, seeded No. 28, was thrashed by two-time Slam champion Garbine Muguruza, who repeatedly struck first, moved with ease and showed an improved return of serve. Her 1:10 6-2, 6-1 rout qualifies as a beatdown. Next, the reigning Wimbledon champion will face the famously slam-less Simona Halep, who beat Angie Kerber in three sets. Their contrasting styles could make for a delicious match. Muguruza has won a Slam in each of the past two years and she hasn’t won one this year. Don’t bet against her.

****

Thursday’s Sloane Stephens vs. Madison Keys semifinal match will not only be a replay of last year’s US Open final, it will be the first All-American French Open semi in 16 years and it will mean there will be an American into the final for the first time since Serena in 2016. Time and again today, we heard the patriotic question, “Who says Americans can’t play on clay?”

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