Schwartzman: ‘It Was A Pleasure To Play Against Andy’

Diego Schwartzman and Andy Murray (photo: European Open)

ANTWERP/WASHINGTON, October 21, 2021 (by Michael Dickens)

There was much curiosity over how Great Britain’s Andy Murray would be able to recover following his three-hour and 45-minute marathon first-round match against Frances Tiafoe just two days ago at the European Open in Antwerp, Belgium. After all, the 34-year-old three-time major winner with the metal hip has become well-known for engaging in lengthy battles on court – win or lose.

After beating Tiafoe in three tie-break sets Tuesday night, 7-6 (2), 6-7 (7), 7-6 (8), in this ATP Tour 250 indoor hard court event, a knackered Murray certainly had justified his wild card with his tenacity and desire. He conveyed in his press conference afterward that the recovery process on the day after – through soaking his body in an ice bath, in engaging in a light workout on a stationary bike and, just as important, with good nutrition – would be key. After all, Murray had managed not only to survive the longest best-of-3 set match so far this year but also to calmly and with clarity talk about it.

“Nowadays, obviously my body is old now. I’ve played a lot of matches on the Tour. I don’t mind playing long matches, but that was taking it to another level,” Murray said. “I will use my day off now to get ready for Thursday.”

Meanwhile, a victory by the 172nd-ranked wild card Murray against World No. 14 and second seed Diego Schwartzman of Argentina would equal the Briton’s best result of the season and advance him to face a qualifier in the quarterfinals, No. 79 Brandon Nakashima of the United States, who beat No. 99 Henri Laaksonen of Switzerland, 7-6 (5), 6-7 (5), 6-3, in two hours and 24 minutes.

Surprising, even though Murray and Schwartzman have been competing on the ATP Tour together for 11 years, the former World No. 1 and the Argentine – although they’ve been practice partners – had never faced each other until Thursday evening’s featured match at Lotto Arena.

After watching the two veteran professionals go at it for two hours and 13 minutes, it’s too bad it took that long for the first time to finally happen because these two friendly combatants could have developed into a great rivalry. As they showed, there’s plenty of mutual respect between them.

After a first-round bye, Schwartzman in his first action of the tournament was attempting to reach his seventh quarterfinal of the season, having reached the last eight in each of his past two outings, at the San Diego Open and at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells – and he did, winning 6-4, 7-6 (6).

“It was a pleasure to play against Andy,” Schwartzman said during his on-court TV interview after his win. “We had not played before and he is coming back and every week he is playing better and moving better. I have a lot of respect because when I grew up playing tennis, I was watching Roger [Federer], Rafa [Nadal], Andy and [Novak] Djokovic, and right now, playing against him is a pleasure for me. I was just trying to enjoy the match.” 

From the outset, Murray, who won the title at Antwerp in 2019, started aggressively, hitting with power and purpose. He took a 4-1 lead, having dropped just two points through his first three service games. However, as Schwartzman warmed up and started to dictate points, he won five straight games to capture the 55-minute opening set.

Then, the 29-year-old Schwartzman broke Murray in the fifth game of the second set, but the Briton wasn’t through fighting. At 4-3, he came to life and broke Schwartzman to level the set at 4-all. Next, he prevailed in a 10-point tussle the following game to hold for 5-4. Eventually, after a series of holds, the set went to a tie break. After a series of mini breaks, Murray saved a match point at 5-6 with his eighth ace, but eventually it was Schwartzman who prevailed 8-6 after Murray sent a one final shot, a forehand, long of its desired mark.

Afterward, during his virtual news conference, Murray expressed disappointment in the final result. “Mentally today I was poor,” he said. “My attitude was poor on the court and those are two things you can control. If they’re not there, that also will make the decision making harder.”

Murray stressed the importance to understand when a tactic or strategy isn’t working and to adapt. “You’re not going to get every single one right in the match,” he said. “But you also have to be present enough to acknowledge what is actually happening in the points and why you are winning and losing points. 

“Sport is a results business. If you play well or poorly, it doesn’t really matter if you lose the matches. You need to be winning and win matches maybe when you’re not playing your best, which I have done a few times these past few months, but certainly not as many as I would have liked. That’s obviously what I want in the last few tournaments [of the season.]”

If all goes accordingly, Murray hopes to be able to play in three more tournaments to complete his 2021 season: The Erste Bank Open in Vienna, Austria next week; the Rolex Paris Masters at Bercy-Paris (Nov. 1-7); and the Stockholm Open in Stockholm, Sweden (Nov. 7-13).

“There’s certainly no guarantee the results will come,” Murray said, “but that’s I would like to do is win more matches.”

Meanwhile, Schwartzman was cheerful after beating Murray and made a point of thanking the city of Antwerp and the European Open fans who watched him play in Lotto Arena Thursday evening.

“I really like to play here,” Schwartzman said. “I like the city. … It is a very special city for everyone and for me because when I started to play my best tennis, I reached the finals here twice [2016, 2017]. I also enjoy it here with the people. It is special after so many months with playing without crowds. I’m very happy to be here.”

Around the European Open

• No. 7 seed Lloyd Harris of South Africa, playing confidently and with focus, made an early statement in his second-round match against No. 50 Jan-Lennard Struff of Germany. His steady baseline play and ability to effective score points from both wings enabled him to take a 4-0 double-break lead at the start of the match. There was never much doubt who would win and the 32nd-ranked Harris advanced to his fifth quarterfinal berth of the season – and fourth on a hard-court surface – with a 6-2, 6-3 victory over Struff in an hour and 10 minutes.

While Struff was chasing after his fifth quarterfinal appearance of the season, he’s not made the last eight since May – and three of his four quarterfinals have been on clay. On Thursday, Struff battled hard but in the end was no match for the South African. Harris’s victory, his career-best 29th of the season, was his first win over a German competitor after losing his first four. On Friday, he will face 39th-ranked Marton Fucsovics of Hungary, looking to reach his second semifinal of the year.

Harris won the 29-minute opening set 6-2 after dropping just four points on his serve while facing no break points. He also effectively attacked Struff’s second serve, winning seven of 10 opportunities. Then, Harris continued to apply pressure on Struff and broke his opponent at the outset of the second set. He consolidated the break to lead 2-0, built upon it, and never was broken during the match.

“I came out pretty solid and didn’t make many mistakes,” Harris said after his victory during an on-court TV interview. “He gave me a few looks at second serves, which helped a little bit and I was able to capitalize and build momentum from there. I just tried to focus on my service games and I knew I was going to create some opportunities.”

Harris finished with 11 aces, won 73 percent of his service points and nearly half of his return points. He outpointed Struff 60-47. It all added up to an impressive win.

“I am happy to get over the finish line,” Harris said. “Confidence is everything in our sport, so playing with some confidence is a huge advantage. Hopefully, I keep rolling with this confidence.”

Later, during his press conference, Tennis TourTalk asked Harris where his confidence comes from and how has he been able to build upon it this season, especially with a big win over Rafael Nadal at the Citi Open and a quarterfinal run at the US Open. He said: “Obviously, confidence is key in any sport. I think that I’ve been able to build confidence after some big victories. After beating Rafa and making the quarters [at Washington], then the run at the US Open, it gave me a lot of confidence and belief that I could beat top players. I’ve beaten a lot of good players over the season.

“I definitely have that believe in my head, whether it’s a good day or not so good a day, that I’m still determined to win, still determined to battle for every point. I’ve think been able to use [confidence] to my advantage as I can.”

• Twentieth-ranked ranked Roberto Bautista Agut stepped out on Lotto Arena for the first time when he faced No. 39 Marton Fucsovics Thursday afternoon, vying for his sixth quarterfinal of the season. He won his only previous match against the Hungarian last year in Rotterdam, but one match isn’t always a good sample size for future performance.

Meanwhile, Fucsovics was aiming to reach his fifth quarterfinal of 2021, his most recent coming at Wimbledon, where he lost to World No. 1 Novak Djokovic. He reached the last eight in three straight tournaments in March at Rotterdam, Doha and Dubai. His win earlier this week against Austrian Dennis Novak broke a five-match losing streak that began at Wimbledon. Against Bautista Agut, Fucsovics rallied from a set down and won 6-7 (5), 6-3, 6-1 in an hour and 22 minutes.

Bautista Agut gutted out a first-set tie break 7-5 as the opening set that lasted 65 minutes, but wasn’t able to sustain the momentum. Fucsovics broke the Spaniard in each of his first two service games and jumped ahead 5-0 in the second set. Although Fucsovics surrendered one of the breaks back, he won the set 6-3. At the start of the third set, Fucsovics capitalized on his first break-point opportunity and consolidated the break for a 2-0 lead and leveraged it for the remainder of the match. He outpointed Bautista Agut 99-81.

French duo advance to doubles semifinals

No. 2 seeds Nicolas Mahut and Fabrice Martin, both of France, advanced to the semifinal round with a 7-6 (3), 6-4 win over Austrians Oliver Marach and Philipp Oswald. Next, they will play unseeded Denys Molchanov of Ukraine and Aleksandr Nedovyesov of Kazakhstan, who advanced by retirement over over Federico Delbonis of Argentina and David Vega Hernandez of Spain, after leading 6-3.

No. 3 seeds Wesley Koolhof and Jean-Julien Rojer, both of the Netherlands advanced by walkover against Lorenzo Musetti of Italy and Benoit Paire of France. They will face unseeded Lloyd Harris of South Africa and Xavier Matisse of Belgium – pupil and coach – in the semifinals after they upset No. 1 seeds Ivan Dodig of Croatia and Marcelo Melo of Brazil, 6-4, 3-6, 10-7.

Thursday’s European Open results 

Friday’s European Open order of play

At age 41, Malisse shows he’s still has game

Arguably, the most interesting doubles pairing at the European Open has been South African Lloyd Harris, 24, and Xavier Malisse, 41, of Belgium. As it happened, the former Top 25 Belgian star in both singles and doubles had been coaching Harris at Indian Wells and hitting a lot recently. So, it was only natural that they would try their hand at playing doubles together.

Harris and Malisse received a wild card and on Wednesday beat Romain Arneodo of Monaco and Matt Reid of Australia, 6-4, 7-6 (4) to reach Thursday’s quarterfinal round, where they faced Ivan Dodig of Croatia and Marcelo Melo of Brazil – and upset the No. 1 seeds, 6-4, 3-6, 10-7. These have been Malisse’s first tour-level matches since he appeared at the 2013 US Open.

Malisse told the ATP Tour website after Wednesday’s victory that this would be a one-time opportunity and that he’s not considering a Tour comeback. He said he’s happy to “be back out there and compete one more time.

“[My] serve is a lot slower, so placement becomes more important, but I felt okay,” Malisse said. “Most of all we had fun. I didn’t expect to win, but it’s nice to get a win.”

Harris was asked about playing with Malisse during an on-court interview after his singles victory against Jan-Lennard Struff on Thursday. He said, “It was really fun. It’s incredible to play like that after eight years not playing. It’s unbelievable. I know hits the ball really well, his serve, his return and everything. It’s a privilege and so much fun.”

The bottom line according to Malisse was that it was fun. “That’s the whole reason we participated,” he said. “Honestly, it felt nice to be back, it’s nice to play and also alongside Lloyd after a good summer together and good traveling. It felt really good. I was actually pretty happy with how it went.”

Wrapping their tongues around the Dutch language

Going behind the scenes, Andy Murray, Jannik Sinner and Diego Schwartzman – good sports all, whose first languages are English, Italian and Spanish, respectively – tried their hand at mastering some basic Dutch phrases. Some went better than others but it was all in good fun and learning.