In 1996, Nike released an ad with the controversial slogan, “You don’t win silver, you lose gold”. No one remembers the runner-up is another way in which the same idea is often articulated by snooty commentators and coaches. Everyone recoils at the harshness of these cruel adages, but if you try recalling the names of those who ended up second-best at your favourite sporting events, you might find that the platitude exist for a reason.
So, to celebrate a man who is still to reach a major tournament final (not yet earning the right to even compete for the runner up position) is perhaps a little odd. Yet, if an awful year defined by a pandemic and an endless stream of miserable news ought to have taught us anything, it is to re-examine what we appreciate in life and revisit our definitions of success.
Argentina’s Diego Schwartzman plays tennis superstar Rafael Nadal on Friday for a spot in the French Open final. Nadal is a mind-boggling 12-time champion in Paris, and the undisputed GOAT (Greatest Of All Time) on clay – tennis’ most demanding surface.
To call Schwartzman versus Nadal a David versus Goliath matchup would be an understatement. However, Schwartzman is no stranger to the David analogy. He is the real-life underdog in a version of the story that rarely ends well for David.
At a purported height of 5 feet 7 inches (by most accounts he is slightly shorter than that), the Argentine is a massive outlier. He is currently ranked as the 14th best player in the world — a testament to his incredible skills and a stunning achievement in a tall man’s sport. (The median height of tennis’ top 20 male players has risen from 5’11 in 1978 to 6’3 in 2018; Increasing racket sizes and superior string technology have tilted the balance hopelessly in favour of big-built power hitters who can impart tremendous spin on the ball making it bounce well above the strike zone of those under six feet).
No commentator on a match featuring Schwartzman has ever been able to resist referring to his height deficit. The phrases they use for him are boringly predictable – “diminutive”, “little”, “pint-sized”, “if only Diego was a few inches taller…”.
The Argentine is unlikely to ever win any of tennis’ biggest titles. He might not make any Hall-of-Fame lists, nor be remembered much once his playing days are over. But the winner-take-all nature of modern society often distorts what we value in life.
Schwartzman has always maintained that his height does not define him, that he has had “worse problems than being 10 centimetres shorter than everybody else.” He has spoken of the desperate financial troubles his once-affluent family suffered as Argentina’s economy collapsed in the 1990s. Supporting his tennis playing ambitions was a struggle for his parents and when a doctor told him at age 13, that he would never be taller than five and half feet, he was devastated. But the unflinching support of his parents, who insisted that his height shouldn’t influence his dreams, spurred a young Diego on.
By age 16, financial support from well-wishers made it possible for him to travel more and get a coach. He never experienced success as a junior player on the tour, but the awareness of his family’s struggle against all odds helped him keep the faith. It takes generations to enable a career and the Schwartzman family story is indisputable proof of that.
Diego’s maternal great-grandfather was put on a train to a Nazi concentration camp during the Holocaust, when the coupling that connected two of the train’s cars broke. The compartment his great-grandfather was in, was part of the train that got left behind on the tracks, allowing all those trapped inside to escape.
In such fateful moments of pure chance lie the unknowable journeys of the future. For Schwartzman, knowledge of the seemingly insurmountable struggles his family has overcome in the past has helped bring perspective to the challenges imposed by his physical limitations on the court. We glorify only winners and not runners-up, or god-forbid lowly semi-finalists, forgetting that the beauty of life lies in the journey and not the destination. That a silver or a bronze, or even just being able to make a living doing what we enjoy, is no less admirable. In a year that has been so difficult for so many, Diego Schwartzman’s story of resilience, family, and mind over matter, is an inspiration that no gold medal can top.
(The writer is a consumer researcher and part of the founding team at Junoon Theatre)
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