Rafael Nadal battled illness and an inspired performance by America qualifier Tim Smyczek to reach the third round of the Australian Open. Lacking match sharpness coming into the year’s first Grand Slam after injury wrecked the second half of his 2014 schedule, Nadal was pushed all the way on Rod Laver Arena on Wednesday evening in Melbourne before coming through in the final set, closing out Smyczek 6-2 3-6 6-7 (2-7) 6-3 7-5.
Nadal had breezed through his opening match Down Under against Mikhail Youzhny and looked set to do the same in the second round, after taking the opening set 6-2. But he then dropped the next two sets to leave the 14-time Grand Slam champion staring at a first ever defeat to a qualifier in a major. The Spaniard confirmed afterward that he was suffering physically.
“I felt very tired,” he said at his press conference. “At the end of the first set, I started to feel my body was very bad, very tired. I don't know. I was worrying like crazy. Then when I was serving for the third [set], I almost throw up. I suffered too much on court for three hours and a half. I was suffering a lot. Too much.”
Smyczek, ranked 112 in the world, had only ever got past the second round of a Grand Slam once in his nine-year career. He same so close to doing so again, but Nadal dug deep to break serve at 5-5 in the fifth set before serving out the match. Despite the agonizing loss, the 27-year-old paid tribute to the fighting qualities of the man across the net.
“That was really special tonight,” he said. “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.”
This is Nadal’s first Grand Slam since last year’s Wimbledon, having battled wrist and back injuries as well as appendicitis at the tail end of 2014. The 2009 champion in Melbourne played down his own chances of lifting the trophy in Melbourne coming into the event and will now have to recover from his four-hour-and-12-minutes epic to return to the court on Friday.
“I feel lucky to have the chance to finish the match, and then to find a way to win,” he said. “All the moments I spend on court are important. It’s not positive be like this, but in general it’s important to win these kind of matches. That gives me the possibility to play again, and I going to try to make better the next day.”
The Mallorca native, who cited the humid conditions as one reason for his physical state, will likely be relieved, too, to have discovered that awaiting him in the third round will not be the man who famously upset him at Wimbledon in 2012, Lukas Rosol, but instead Israeli veteran Dudi Sela.