There’s a photo of Diego Schwartzman shaking hands at the net with Alexander Zverev after their match at the 2019 U.S. Open that says a lot—if not everything—about why people are so excited about the best Jewish tennis player in a generation. Schwartzman, who’s from Argentina, is 5′7″. Zverev, a German, is 6′6″. But either Zverev is lying and he’s much taller than he says—which no athlete in history has ever done—or Schwartzman didn’t want to hit the pro tour with an official height that makes him shorter than my grandmother was. Because in the photo, Zverev towers over Schwartzman. This is no 11 inches. We’re talking two heads taller.
At this point, 5′7″, 4′7″, it doesn’t really matter. The more relevant stat is that Schwartzman is, as I write this, the ninth-best player in the world. He made the quarterfinals of the 2019 U.S. Open, losing to the eventual champion, Rafael Nadal. In 2020, he stunned Nadal in Rome, only to fall to him a few weeks later at the French Open. In a sport increasingly dominated by NBA-height goliaths such as the 6′11″ American Reilly Opelka, Schwartzman is an unlikely, and likable, David.
IN THE Washington Jewish Week, Emily Burack wrote a gushing tribute titled: “Why Diego Schwartzman Is my Tennis Crush.” There’s a lot to crush on: his big smile, backwards baseball cap, and the fact that he plays with so much fight, it’s not inconceivable that he could win a major. In a game of huge serves, he counters with a huge return. In 2020, he came second in return games won: 36.38 percent, a hair behind Nadal’s 36.39 percent. At an age—Schwartzman is 28—when a lot of players get sidelined by injury or burnout, he keeps getting better.
The capper for fans like Burack is that he’s unapologetic about his Judaism, from his bar mitzvah onward. “I am Jewish and in Argentina…all the [Jewish] people there know me,” he has said. He’s the descendent of Holocaust survivors on both sides, including a grandfather who made a daring escape from a train headed for the camps. Named after Argentinian soccer legend Diego Maradona, who was himself only 5′5″, Schwartzman wanted to quit tennis when a doctor told him he was doomed to shortness. But his mother, Silvana, wouldn’t have it: “I told Diego his height shouldn’t have an influence on his dreams because since the day he was born, I knew he would become something special.” If he were to win Wimbledon, the Australian, U.S., or French Opens, he’d be the first Jew to win one of tennis’s four most prestigious events in four decades.
What’s with the long dry spell? Let’s just say Judaism isn’t exactly the sport’s official religion. Example: Only two years ago, it was a big deal when the Los Angeles Tennis Club, where I play, held its first annual “Latke Night.” Founded in 1920, it’s the oldest tennis club in L.A.—old enough that the membership application used to ask what church you belonged to. Hint: “Temple Emanuel” would not have been a correct answer. In fact, the Beverly Hills Tennis Club was founded in 1929 for players who ticked the wrong box at the LATC.
Full disclosure: I’m not Jewish, but I can pass. And my wife, Ilene, is Jewish enough for both of us. She won the brisket contest on Latke Night. My two teenage boys are being raised as Jews. The older one happens to be named Diego (after my Spanish father), and he plays tennis. No one has a bigger case of Schwartzmania than my wife, who gets giddy every time she sees another Jewish tennis-playing “Diego” on TV.
But as much as she loves playing, she’s never felt 100 percent comfortable at our club socially. She didn’t stay long at the Oktoberfest party when a few of the older members showed up in dirndls and lederhosen. There are plenty of Jewish members now, but Angela Buxton, who won Wimbledon and the French doubles championships in 1956, was turned away from the LATC by Perry T. Jones, then president of the Southern California Tennis Association. My friend, the tennis writer Joel Drucker, said our Latke Night would have Jones rolling in his grave. The All England Club also turned Buxton down. Odds are that her partner, Althea Gibson, the first great black player, would have met the same fate. One English paper reported their Wimbledon victory under the headline “Minorites Win.”
For our club’s 2020 centenary celebration, I helped put together 100 “fun facts” about its storied history. We tried to track down the first Jewish member, to no avail. One club doyenne, who’s been at the club since 1948, said, “Victor Rothschild was already here when I joined.” (Not the Baron—this was a car-wash and gas-station Rothschild.) “If you were a good player,” she told me, “you didn’t have a problem.” Arthur Ashe had a comeback to claims like that. When anyone tried to tell him, “Some of our best players are black,” he’d coolly inquire, “Why aren’t some of your worst?”
There were notables in the early days. Baron Uberto De Morpurgo was born in Trieste in 1896 and was a Top 10 player throughout the 1920s. There’s a great photo of “the Italian Bill Tilden” in a tennis sweater, with a couple of rackets under his arm and a cigarette punctuating a charming, perfect smile. It looks like a still from The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, Vittorio de Sica’s epic elegy for Jewish-Italian aristocrats whose idle world of tennis matches at country villas succumbs to Mussolini’s anti-Semitic jackboot.
One of the greatest female players of the pre-war years was Helen Jacobs, who scandalized the tennis world first by wearing shorts (without stockings) at Wimbledon and later by dint of her long relationship with Henrietta Bingham, daughter of the Louisville publisher and ambassador to England, Robert Bingham. Although born to a Jewish father, Jacobs identified as Christian. The fact that she was more openly gay than openly Jewish says something about which was more acceptable in the tennis world at the time.
The greatest fully Jewish player was also the first Jewish athlete to make the cover of Time. Dick Savitt had won Wimbledon and the Australian in 1951, and Time’s cover came out on the eve of that year’s U.S. Championships (as it was called before it became the U.S. Open). But he lost in the semis at Forest Hills to Vic Seixas, an American whose Brazilian father was, coincidentally, of Sephardic descent. The website Jewornotjew.com considers Seixas a “borderline” case, even though he was raised Presbyterian and always disavowed his Jewish roots.1
Savitt’s is a poignant story. At 25, the year after winning his two Slams and taking the U.S. National Indoor title, he abruptly retired from tennis. This unexpected about-face came on the heels of his controversial Davis Cup snub by team captain Frank Shields (a failed actor, drunk, and grandfather of Brooke Shields). He wouldn’t let Savitt play their chief rivals, the Australians, and pulled Ted Schroeder out of semi-retirement instead. Schroeder lost all his matches to players Savitt had dispatched handily on his way to his 61-minute Australian championship, and the Americans lost the Cup. Five of the top 10 U.S. players accused Shields of “obvious prejudice.”
At the 1952 annual meeting of the United States Lawn Tennis Association, most of the membership was in favor of naming Savitt the No. 1 player in the country (this was before the days of computer rankings), but Shields launched what Time called a “biting” attack that even the USLTA’s high-WASP president Russell Kingman described as “unseemly.” Savitt was named the No. 2 player behind Jew/not-Jew Seixas. And that was it. He took a job in the oil business and was still good enough as a weekend player to win two more National Indoor titles, as well as gold medals in singles and doubles at the 1961 Maccabiah Games.
He never explained his sudden retirement until the tennis writer Sandra Harwitt tracked him down for her 2014 book, The Greatest Jewish Tennis Players of All Time. (No World’s Thinnest Book jokes, please. It’s 289 pages.) “There was no connection to anti-Semitism, I don’t think,” Savitt told Harwitt from his office at Morgan Stanley. There was no money in tennis in those days, “so I left to go into business.” Harwitt says we should take him at his word, but it’s hard to imagine what else half the tennis establishment would have had against him.
ANTI-SEMITISM did crush careers. The Russian-born Daniel Prenn fled the pogroms to Berlin and was the Weimar Republic’s top player until the Nazis forced his expulsion from the prestigious Rot-Weiss club and announced, “The player Dr. Prenn (a Jew) will not be selected for Davis Cup in 1933.” He moved to England, where Michael Marks (the Polish Jew who co-founded Marks & Spencer’s) let him play on his private indoor court, but his career had effectively ended. A similar fate met Ladislav Hecht, a self-taught Czechoslovakian player who rose to No. 6 in the world and won the title at the first Maccabiah Games in 1932. He escaped to the United States three days before the Nazis invaded his homeland.
The best post-Savitt Jewish player was born during the war: Tom Okker from Holland, the “Flying Dutchman” who in 1968 lost the first U.S. “Open” (once it was no longer restricted to amateur players) to Arthur Ashe. Like Helen Jacobs, Okker is half, born to a Jewish father imprisoned by the Nazis during World War II. But unlike Jacobs, he identified as Jewish and won a gold medal at the 1965 Maccabiah Games.
Through the 1960s, tennis remained a restricted WASP domain. Hence the rise of Jewish country clubs like the one Philip Roth employed as a cultural signifier in Goodbye, Columbus. Neil Klugman, the intellectual from Newark (the wrong side of the New Jersey tracks), falls in love with Brenda Patimkin, a suburban goddess who plays tennis at the Green Hills Country Club, derided by Neil’s aunt Gladys as “fancy-shmancy.” Schwartzman himself learned to play at the Hacoaj JCC club in Buenos Aires, founded in 1935 as the “Club Náutico Israelita” (“Israelite Rowing Club”) for Jews barred from the city’s other sports facilities.
Things loosened up in the ’70s. While the Golden Age of tennis was dominated by three players no one could imagine wearing a tallit—the ice-cool Swede Bjorn Borg and two fighting Irishmen, Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe—there were plenty of Jewish contenders.
Harold Solomon and his doubles partner Eddie Dibbs were known as “The Bagel Twins,” though Dibbs was Lebanese. Solomon was known as “The Human Backboard” and drove opponents crazy looping “moonballs” to their backhands and made the finals of the French in 1976. Four years earlier, during the 1972 Davis Cup final in Bucharest, Solomon and his teammate Brian Gottfried were sequestered under guard in their hotel because of the massacre of the Israeli Olympic team in Munich a month earlier. The Ceaușescu regime was pro-Palestinian, but his nation’s two tennis superstars, Ion Tiriac and Ilie Nastase, were on the Romanian team. Tennis trumped politics, and Ceaușescu made sure nothing happened to Solomon and Gottfried, whose team, led by Stan Smith, would ultimately beat Romania to win the Cup.
One of the most controversial players of the 1970s was born Richard Raskind and raised as “a nice Jewish boy,” then shocked the tennis world when he decided to become a she and sued for the right to play as “Renée Richards.” A superb athlete who’d also excelled at football, swimming, and baseball at his elite New York private school (he was a good enough pitcher that the Yankees invited him to try out), Richards won more headlines than tennis trophies but did make the third round of the U.S. Open—on the women’s side.
The last Jewish player to capture a singles Major was Californian Brian Teacher, who won the Australian in 1980. Since then, there have been flashes of brilliance, such as phenom Aaron Krickstein, but even he was famous less for his many wins than his 1991 U.S. Open loss to a 39-year-old Jimmy Connors, because for years the Open broadcast replayed it every time there was a rain delay. Israel has produced solid players, thanks in no small part to the Israel Tennis Centers that Dick Savitt helped start in 1973. Shlomo Glickstein was No. 22 in the world in 1982. Gilad Bloom was a Top 100 player. Now there’s Dudi Sela, known as “The Hebrew Hammer.”
The only male player ever to have won Olympic gold in both singles and doubles is Chile’s Nicolás Massú, whose full name is Nicolás Massú Fried. His father is Palestinian, his mother Hungarian-Jewish. Her parents were Holocaust survivors, and it was her father who introduced tennis to his grandson.
FOR A BRIEF MOMENT, the Great Jewish Hope was New York prodigy Noah Rubin, born in 1996, who won Junior Wimbledon and Kalamazoo (as the American championship for boys 18 and younger is known). For his bar mitzvah’s charity project, he collected and donated racquets to the Israel Tennis Centers. “I want people to know I’m Jewish and I like to represent Jewish people,” he has said. But like so many brilliant juniors, Rubin is struggling on the pro Tour and has yet to crack in to the top 100. To deal with the emotional toll tennis takes, he started an Instagram account called “Behind the Racquet.” Players, professional and not, vent their fears and insecurities under a photo of them behind the strings of their racquet. It’s basically an analyst’s couch; and it doesn’t get much more Jewish than that.
Schwartzman has yet to get behind Rubin’s strings. He doesn’t seem introspective like the young Greek player Stefanos Tsitsipas, whose art photography and poetic social-media musings have made him a heartthrob. Schwartzman just gets out there and grinds—and can take pride in the knowledge that any time he wins a set 6 games to 0, it’s called a “bagel.”
1 Boris Becker, the bruising German who won Wimbledon at 17, at one time acknowledged that his mother, Elvira Pisch, was a Czech Jew raised Catholic during the war but now, weirdly, refuses to talk about it. Pete Sampras, on the other hand, embraces his Jewish roots (a grandmother on his father’s side) but can hardly be claimed as a member of the Tribe.
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