MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — For more than four hours, American qualifier Tim Smyczek fought desperately for every point against Rafael Nadal at the Australian Open, chasing down everything the 14-time Grand Slam champion threw at him.
Then, with No. 3-ranked Nadal serving at 6-5 in the fifth set, he gave his opponent a break.
A spectator shouted just as the Spaniard was about to make contact with his first serve, causing him to miss long. As Nadal glared into the stands, Smyczek motioned that he should retake the first serve. Nadal did — and won the point and the second-round match 6-2, 3-6, 6-7 (2), 6-3, 7-5.
Smyczek won Nadal’s respect.
“What he did at the end of the fifth is just amazing,” he said. “Very few players can do that after four hours something of a match, at 6-5, love-30. So I just will say thanks to him because he’s a great example what he did today.”
Smyczek, a soft-spoken 27-year-old from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, never questioned doing the sporting thing.
“I don’t know if the guy didn’t know (Nadal) was tossing the ball or not, but it clearly bothered him,” he said, looking down and smiling sheepishly. “You know, I thought it was the right thing to do.”
Ranked 112th in the world, Smyczek had never beaten a top-10 player; his previous best win was against No. 19 Jurgen Melzer at a tournament in Delray Beach, Florida, in 2012.
He toils for much of the season on the second-tier Challenger circuit, playing in front of sparse crowds in towns like Napa, California, and Charlottesville, Virginia. He had to survive three rounds of qualifying just to make the Australian Open main draw.
Against Nadal in front of 15,000 fans at Rod Laver Arena, though, the American played without fear, racing out to a two-sets-to-one lead behind his pin-point serve — he finished with 15 aces — and a huge forehand that he used to hit 28 of his 64 winners.
At one point, with the Spaniard ailing due to the humidity and fatigue, he even entertained the thought he might actually win.
“I had a good game plan going in. The most important thing I thought was for me to try and stay within myself,” he said. “I didn’t really struggle with nerves too much just because I got nothing to lose.”
Nadal was impressed with Smyczek’s play, too, admitting he knew little about his opponent before the match.
“I saw him play in some videos,” he said.
For Smyczek, it’s now back to the minor leagues, with the goal of lifting his ranking into the top 100 so he doesn’t have to qualify for the Slams anymore. He’s supposed to play a challenger in Hawaii next week, but he may take a week off to rest after his performance in Melbourne.
“It’s definitely not going to be the same as playing a night session on Rod Laver,” he said. “It’s just part of the deal with being ranked 100 in the world. You’ve got to do it.”
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