(Photo credit: REUTERS/Susana Vera)
As the seemingly unstoppable Nadal juggernaut looks to run on in Madrid, Diego Schwartzman faces the unenviable task of trying to stop the five-time champion in front of his home fans. Nadal has not dropped a set on a clay court since losing to Dominic Thiem last year at the Italian Open in the quarterfinals. Schwartzman, in contrast, after a career-year last season has struggled badly at times in 2018. Who will come out on top?
Nadal and Schwartzman have met four times thus far in their careers and the Argentine has picked up just one set. Their first match came five years ago in Acapulco when Nadal defeated a then-little known Schwartzman comfortably 6-2 6-2 in the first round, going on to win the tournament without dropping a set. They met again two years later in the first round of the US Open where Nadal was again victorious in straight sets, winning 7-6 6-3 7-5.
There first meeting on clay came a year ago at the Monte Carlo Masters in the quarterfinals where Nadal emerged victorious 6-4 6-4, hitting a particularly sublime hotshot along the way. They clashed most recently earlier this year, at the Australian Open in the fourth round. Nadal did not look quite at his best in that match and Schwartzman pushed hard to take advantage. Ultimately, however, Nadal’s quality told as he won 6-3 6-7 6-3 6-3.
Path to the third round
Nadal, as top seed, received a first round bye and so took to the court for the first time against Gael Monfils. The eccentric Frenchman came into the match with a record of just two wins in fifteen attempts against the Spaniard and, perhaps unsurprisingly given Nadal’s form on the clay so far this year, didn’t look entirely confident in his chances. Despite asking the crowd for advice, he was soundly beaten 6-3 6-1.
Schwartzman began his Madrid campaign with a much-needed win against Adrian Mannarino after having picked up just one win from his previous three clay court tournaments. That set up a second round clash with Feliciano Lopez. It was Schwartzman who made the better start, winning the first set 7-5 with a late break. Lopez battled back impressively to level proceedings, but faded in the decider as Schwartzman advanced 7-5 2-6 6-2.
How do they match up?
Both Schwartzman and Nadal are natural clay courters. As a result, whilst this match will primarily be played from the baseline, both men are likely to get forward as much as possible, and to use dropshots to bring their opponents forward. Schwartzman would likely do well to keep Nadal on the move as much as he possibly can, as if he allows the match to turn into a baseline slugging match there will be only one winner.
The problem for Schwartzman is that Nadal is so comfortable dictating on a clay court. His forehand is the centrepiece of his arsenal, and the Spaniard has it used throughout his career to great affect. But his backhand is a formidable weapon in its own right, so just going to the Nadal backhand is not a viable strategy. The world #1 is also a fine volleyer, meaning that even if Schwartzman can draw him from the baseline, the point may still escape the Argentine.
This has been a tournament of progress for Schwartzman, who was in dire need of wins after a terrible start to the clay court season. But he would find Nadal a daunting prospect even if he was at the very peak of his powers, which he unquestionably is not. With Nadal in this sort of form, and Schwartzman struggling, there seems to be only one plausible outcome. Indeed, for Schwartzman, this may be more about keeping the score respectable than going for the win.