Australian Open 2015: Nadal digs deep to survive Smyczek and dizzy spell

Rafael Nadal battles past qualifier Tim Smyczek in five sets to reach the Australian Open third round

On paper, Rafael Nadal’s second-round contest against Tim Smyczek was a David and Goliath affair.

Nadal, seeded No3, a former Australian Open champion, owner of 14 Majors and over 700 matches in a glittering career, faced a No112 qualifier with just 24 match-wins to his name in nine years as a pro.

Nadal had never lost to a qualifier in 39 Majors, had never fallen short of the third round in Australia, and not short of the quarters in Melbourne since missing the event in 2006. Smyczek had only ever played in seven Majors, and scored just his sixth win—over Luke Saville—to take on his mighty opponent.

But if there was one question coming into this year’s tournament, it was about the form of Nadal. He had played hardly a match since losing in the fourth-round of Wimbledon last year, winning just four in three tournaments as he contended with back and wrist injury and then an appendectomy.

His rustiness showed in his only warm-up of the year in Doha, where he lost in the first round to Michael Berrer, his second loss to a qualifier in his last four matches. However, he went on to win the Doha doubles title, and by the time he faced former top-10 player Mikhail Youzhny in Melbourne, he looked more like his old self, losing just seven games.

Smyczek was far from rusty: He had come through three qualifying matches to make the main draw, and worked hard to beat Saville, 7-6, 7-5, 6-4. But would the scale of the task prove too much as he aimed to become the first American to beat a top-three player in a Grand Slam since Andy Roddick defeated Andy Murray at 2009 Wimbledon?

The first set suggested ‘yes’, with Nadal racing through with two breaks, 6-1, in half an hour. But that was all about to change.

After exchanging breaks in the first two games, Smyczek harried to another break in the seventh game when Nadal double faulted at 0-40 and, for good measure, the American broke for the set, 6-3, with his 12th winner of the set. An uncharacteristically listless Nadal had managed just two winners to 14 errors.

The Smyczek run continued in the third set when a cross-court winner stole a break in the second game for 2-0. Nadal began to look physically exhausted, indeed unwell, but he found enough to break back before calling for a medical time-out. He talked of dizziness—and would afterwards talk of the humid conditions—but Nadal was not about to concede anything, and broke again to serve for the set at 5-4. A drenched and struggling Nadal again double faulted on break point and two men headed, via a fire-cracker of a rally, to a tie-break.

Sure enough, a fresh, calm and energetic Smyczek quickly took advantage for a 4-1 lead, and a couple of screeching winners followed by an ace sealed the set, 7-6(2). Once again, the American had posted an impressive 20 winners for the set.

Even well into the fourth set, Nadal looked out for the count, bent double after long rallies, brow furrowed, looking to his box. But experience told him what to do: Keep the rallies short, put his energy into first-strike winners. It worked.

Smyczek, who had looked the picture of confidence throughout, was thrown out of his rhythm, Nadal broke for a 4-2 lead, and levelled the match at 6-3. For the first time in a couple of hours, he fist-pumped, vamos-ed, and curled his lip in defiance. He was on the move.

Smyczek bravely held off two break points in the first game of the decider, and another in the seventh. They were locked at 140 points apiece after four hours, but now Nadal had the familiar strut, and his ground-strokes were finding their mark with worrying consistency: two such shots broke the American, leaving Nadal to serve for the match.

There was one last moment of drama: A shout from the crowd during a Nadal first serve produced a fault, but Smyczek offered Nadal another play—a remarkable gesture at such a point. Nadal went 40-0, only for the American to level at deuce, but it was a hopeless case. Nadal won, 7-5, and collapsed to court in relief.

It had taken 4hrs12 mins, and every ounce of fighting spirit that Nadal possesses. But the match will be remembered as much for the quality of his opponent’s tennis—and even in the last set Smyczek made more winners than Nadal, notching up 64 in the match—and his sportsmanship. Countless times the American applauded Nadal’s play, and his reward was a standing ovation.

Nadal was quick to say: “Tim, he’s a real gentleman to do what he did in the last game.”

But what of Nadal’s health? “I felt very tired after the first set, [but] I tried to use my best attitude, and with the help of the crowd, thank you…

“I started to have some cramps around the body. But all this process is normal after a tough period without time on the tour. So just accept the situation, try to fight for every point… all this gives me the chance to be back at the right level.”

He will no doubt be pleased that he is to next play Dudi Sela, a surprise winner over No28 seed Lukas Rosol in four sets. Rosol beat Nadal in a memorable five setter at Wimbledon in 2012. Nadal’s potential fourth-round opponents, No24 Richard Gasquet or No14 Kevin Anderson, also advanced via, respectively, James Duckworth and Richard Berankis, both in straight sets. Tomas Berdych, Nadal’s scheduled quarter-final opponent, beat Jurgen Melzer, 7-6(0), 6-2, 6-2. He next plays Viktor Troicki, who beat No26 seed Leonardo Mayer, 6-4, 4-6, 6-4, 6-0.

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