There is no safety net in tennis.
Each combatant stands on court entirely alone, without the support of teammates or coaches, often for hours at a time. He or she must conquer court conditions, an opponent, and at times him- or herself without any outside help.
Tennis is perhaps the only sport in which a competitor can win more points than his opponent and still lose a match. Thus, the mental game at least as important as the physical. The key to a victory is winning what players call “the important points,” i.e., break points (which determine whether a player can win his or her opponent’s service game), set points (which give one player victory in a set), and match points.
A champion tennis player must be able to instantly forget what has transpired and must maintain a keen competitive intensity in order to capitalize on an opponent’s vulnerability. In addition to talent, technique, and stamina, tennis requires patience, clarity of thought, problem-solving skills, strategic flexibility, and great mental fortitude.
Next weekend, the tennis world will crown its first Grand Slam champions of 2015 at the Australian Open in Melbourne. One hundred twenty-eight men and an equal number of women entered the singles competitions on week ago. As I write, 12 men and 12 women remain.
Tennis’ four yearly Grand Slam tournaments (the Australian Open on hard courts, the French Open on clay, Wimbledon on grass, and the U.S. Open on hard courts again) afford numerous examples of athletic virtuosity – a cornucopia of impossibly fast serves, brilliant defensive saves, and sublime winning shots. YouTube abounds with “Gee whiz!” match highlights.
To me, the players’ mental ebbs and flows and the psychological contest intrinsic to each match are at least as interesting as the athletic endeavors. One can learn a great deal from tennis about human nature and about character, especially in the high-stakes crucible of a Grand Slam, in which the men have to play best-of-five-set matches.
One of my favorite stories out of Melbourne this past week starred Feliciano Lopez, a 33-year-old Spanish left-hander with an old-school, serve-and-volley playing style. Having played the best tennis of his career in 2014, Lopez entered the Australian Open with his highest-ever Grand Slam seed, 12. This ensured that he would not meet a more highly-ranked player until the tournament’s fourth round.
Danger struck Lopez in his first-round match. He required five sets, and had to fight off three match points, to put down a spirited challenge from 21-year-old American Denis Kudla.
Two days later, Lopez took to the court for his second-round match on a hot and humid afternoon. His hard-hitting opponent, 26-year-old Frenchman Adrian Mannarino, blasted winners left and right, bossing Lopez around the court, and won the first two sets 6-4 6-4.
Lopez soon found himself down two breaks of serve in the third set. Only minutes away from elimination from the tournament, Lopez dug in and refused to concede. He broke Mannarino’s serve twice to force the contest back onto even terms.
When Lopez served at 3-4, Mannarino broke him and served for the set (and the match) at 5-3. With his back to the wall, Lopez dug in again and managed to break Mannarino’s serve and keep his chances alive. Both players held serve until they reached a tiebreak at 6-6. Quickly, Lopez found himself in trouble, dropping his first service point and falling to a 0-3 deficit in the tiebreak. Lopez refused to go quietly. He fought and scraped, making up the deficit, taking a lead, and finally prevailing in the tiebreak to win the third set after fighting off a match point.
In the fourth set, Mannarino began to show signs of incipient heatstroke. Lopez broke Mannarino’s service twice and raced to a 4-0 lead, at which point Mannarino collapsed onto the pavement. Mannarino had to be transported to a hospital, where he received intravenous fluids. Lopez was awarded the win by default.
Lopez could have conceded the match. He could have said to himself, “It’s hot. My opponent is playing well. Even if I win the third set, I will have to win two more to take the match. Why not give in?” Instead, he refused to go away and thereby won a battle of attrition. As I write, Lopez is still alive in the competition as the oldest player in the men’s final 16. (He is also the only man still alive in both the singles and the doubles tournaments.)
As Winston Churchill said, “Never, ever, ever, ever, ever give up.”
The tale of sportsmanship and valor about which the most ink was spilt last week unfolded on the night before Lopez’s heroic stand. That story featured Spanish superstar Rafael Nadal and American journeyman Tim Smyczek in the lead parts and the heat that would ultimately fell Mannarino in a pivotal supporting role.
Tied for second on the men’s all-time Grand Slam title list with 14 and owner of an unsurpassable record of excellence on clay courts, Nadal arrived at Melbourne in a questionable state of fitness. After winning a record ninth French Open title last June, Nadal had suffered a freak wrist injury that kept him out of the North American summer tournaments and the U.S. Open. When he returned to competition in China in October, he was almost immediately stricken with appendicitis, which effectively ended his season. An aggressive course of antibiotics enabled him to avoid surgery far from home but forced him to delay his appendectomy for four weeks until early November. He was unable to begin off-season training until the first week of December.
Injury- and pain-free but rusty and lacking match play, Nadal lost his first and only singles match of the year before arriving in Melbourne. While practicing hard in the week before the Australian Open, Nadal told anyone who asked him that he did not feel ready to contend for the title and badly needed match wins. A favorable draw in the first round gave Nadal a veteran opponent whose game he knows very well, which enabled him to chalk up a win. In the second round, he was to face 27-year-old American Tim Smyczek, whom he had never played before, in a night match on Melbourne’s premier court, the Rod Laver Arena.
Smyczek is a 5’9″ native of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Currently ranked 112 in the world, he was forced to enter a qualifying tournament in order to gain entrance into the main draw. Smyczek won his three qualifying matches and then, having drawn an Australian Wildcard, prevailed in his first-round match in straight sets. Smyczek had never played in the vast Rod Laver Arena (or, for that matter, on the main court at any of the Grand Slam sites). The tournament gave him a practice hour in the stadium to enable him to get used to its sight-lines and cavernous space.
At 7 p.m. local time on Wednesday, Nadal and Smyczek walked onto the court in front of a lively evening crowd. After a week of moderate weather, heat and humidity had arrived suddenly on Wednesday and persisted into the evening.
The first set went according to script for the former World #1 and the newcomer. Nadal controlled the points with his thundering forehand and blistered winners around the court, taking the set quickly and easily.
During the second set, Nadal began suffering from the heat. He became nauseated. His head and his stomach ached. Unable to tolerate the foods and replenishment drinks he uses during a match, he resorted to drinking plain water. His electrolytes became seriously depleted. Dizzy and afraid that he might fall over, Nadal became concerned that he might have to default out of the match.
Before he could default, though, Nadal appeared to be on course for a loss. Smyczek played brilliant ball, sticking to a well-thought-out game plan, and took the second set. When Nadal became too dizzy to successfully serve out the third set, Smyczek pressed his advantage to take a two-sets-to-one lead. Nadal began to fear that he might find himself on the next flight home to Spain.
Displaying courage and determination for which he has been renowned throughout his career, Nadal found a way to win the fourth set. Grimacing after shots and bending over between points, he broke Smyczek’s serve and managed to hold onto his own, pushing the match to a fifth set.
At two sets all, Nadal was not out of the woods. Smyczek did not waver. For nearly an hour more, the two men remained locked in nervy, fifth-set combat, staying on serve until Nadal finally broke Smyczek to go up 6-5 and give himself a chance to serve for the match.
While serving at 6-5, Nadal won the first two points with a powerful one-two-punch winner and a successful serve-and-volley play. He lined up for the third point and tossed up the ball for his serve. In that instant, a man in the crowd let out an horrific yell. Nadal missed his serve badly. As the crowd loudly booed the disruption, Nadal stood for an exasperated moment before returning to the line to attempt his second serve.
What happened next is highly unusual in the increasingly cut-throat world of tennis and will stand for years to come as an inspiring example to all players.
With a signal to the chair umpire and to Nadal, Smyczek said, “Go ahead and take another first serve.”
Smyczek was under no obligation to do this. Down 5-6 late in a fifth set to an ailing opponent, he could within the rules have accepted the fan’s interference as a lucky break and attacked Nadal’s typically weaker second serve.
As Smyczek explained later, “[The yell] clearly bothered him. You know, I thought it was the right thing to do.”
Nadal gratefully took the extra first serve and won the point. Five points later he won the match. He collapsed to the court in relief, celebrating his victory over physical suffering as he might have done if he had won a title instead of a second-round match.
Nadal’s first words in his post-match interview on the court and in his post-match press conference were salutes to Smyczek’s outstanding sportsmanship. Tennis players, fans, agents, publicists, coaches, and commentators echoed Nadal’s sentiments in a deluge of praise for Smyczek from literally all over the world. In an instant, Smyczek became a hero in the world of tennis simply for doing the right thing.
As Nadal later told the press, “[Such good sportsmanship] should not be surprising, but is [a] surprise. That’s not [a] positive thing. But [what Smyczek did] is good. Is great. Is very difficult to [concede that serve] and he did.”
Tennis has historically been implicitly governed by an honor system. Players are supposed to call themselves for infractions such as being hit by the ball, touching the net before the point has ended, or reaching across the net to hit the ball.
Unfortunately, recent years have seen the rise of a win-at-all-costs mentality. Players fail to report being hit by a ball (the now-retired Chilean Fernando Gonzalez); fail to report touching the net (Canada’s Milos Raonic); reach across the net to hit winners (Serbia’s Novak Djokovic); and not infrequently take advantage of chair umpires’ mistakes to help their own causes. The worst offenders among today’s players yell at their coaches when matches aren’t going their way, scream so loudly when they hit the ball that they impede their opponents’ shots, take long bathroom breaks between sets to disrupt their opponents’ momentum, and (with the exception of Nadal, who has never broken a racquet) smash their racquets in frustration.
Tim Smyczek did none of this. On the largest stage of his career, he played the best tennis of his life. He served big. He peppered the court with winners. When his opponent started to flag, he kept his focus and stuck to his game plan. Even when the match wasn’t going his way, he never yelled. He never glared at his coach. He never smashed a racquet or showed any frustration. He kept his celebrations modest and was gracious in defeat. A consummate professional through all five sets, he topped off his performance with the most gracious act of sportsmanship tennis has seen in years.
A few weeks from now, Smyczek will return to competition in low-profile, minor league tournaments, the traditional province of players ranked near 100. His tennis will take place primarily outside the spotlight for the rest of the year, but his behavior in that split-second in Australia will live on in the sport’s memory.
Tim Smyczek is the only professional tennis player from Wisconsin. As a Wisconsinite, I am proud to have him representing my country and my state.
Quote for Today
“That was really special tonight. It was pretty clear Rafa didn’t have his best stuff. But it just shows the kind of player, the kind of champion he is because, you know, he was sick and not playing well. That was his C or D game. He found a way to win. So hats off to him. That’s why he’s one of the best.” – Tim Smyczek