Tim Smyczek played the match of his life on Rod Laver Arena Wednesday night. The 27-year-old American, who had only won two Australian Open matches in his career, stretched 14-time major champion Rafael Nadal to his limit. The five set tussle lasted four hours and 12 minutes, and saw a visibly sick Nadal waver throughout the match.
At the end of a hard day’s night, Smyczek was unable to get the job done. Nadal pulled out yet another victory, overcoming an inspired opponent merely because he refused to give in. We’ve all seen it before, and surely we’ll see it again. It’s impressive to watch and more impressive to consider just how hard it is to beat Nadal, regardless of how poorly he’s playing and even less and how well an opponent is playing.
But enough about Nadal.
This match was about the way Smyczek carried himself as a professional tennis player and, more importantly, as a human being.
Smyczek did almost everything better than Nadal. His forehand was better. His backhand was better. His serve and movement were better. The Wisconsin native had more winners and fewer unforced errors. He hit five times as many aces and seven times fewer double faults.
He was badly outplayed in the first set, but kept his head down and kept grinding; undaunted by the score; the magnitude of the match; or the fact that a living legend was beating him down. Smyzcek was on court over four hours, yet we saw few – if any – displays of negative energy. Any type of outward expression of emotion was positive. Even the best in the world – the most mentally resolute – shake their head or yell in anger.
Smyzcek did none of that.
When Nadal began to feel sick, Smyczek didn’t flinch. He continued to focus on the aggressive game plan he had set out for himself from first ball. Even Stan Wawrinka in last year’s final was thrown off by the back injury that plagued Nadal for the final three sets of their match.
Smyczek was awed by neither moment nor opponent. His demeanor was one of unwavering calm, shockingly so. Watching the match at 6 a.m., East Coast viewers were wide-eyed unable to believe what they were seeing.
Where was the dip in form? The mental implosion? Neither came.
Above all, beyond Smyczek’s objectively high level, beyond his physical and mental performance, stood his class and professionalism. He didn’t complain about the time Nadal took between points – even when he certainly could have. He didn’t exhibit any type of frustration towards his box, the umpire or the crowd – things tennis players are known to do.
When Nadal was serving for the match at 6-5, 30-0 in the fifth set, a fan in the crowd yelled out when Nadal was hitting his first serve. Though a second serve could have helped his cause in a must-win game, the American qualifier told Nadal to take two. For this one gesture, Smyczek has received endless praise from around the world for his sportsmanship – praise which he unquestionably deserves.
Nobody would have blamed Smyczek for not giving Nadal a first serve. In fact, many probably wouldn’t even have thought of doing that. I know I wouldn’t have. It would have been easy for Smyczek to think to himself, “He’s already got his foot halfway through the door, and I really need this break.”
None of that ran through his mind.
It was an act that could (and probably should) win him 2015’s Stefan Edberg Sportsmanship Award.
He said he did it because it was the “right thing to do.” During a week where the NFL’s New England Patriots are in the hot seat for alleged cheating, it’s a breath of fresh air to see a player step up to do something as valiant as this. If 100 articles are written about Smyzcek’s sportsmanship, it’s 100 too few.
Hats off to Tim Smyczek for reminding us that good character can teach us more than a victory ever could.