By Ian Ransom
MELBOURNE (Reuters) - One of the best matches of Tim Smyczek's career ended in a five-set defeat by Rafa Nadal at the Australian Open on Wednesday but the American qualifier will head back to the second-tier Challenger tour with renewed faith.
Smyczek exited Rod Laver Arena with a warm ovation from the packed terraces, having pushed a sick Nadal to the wall before succumbing 6-2 3-6 6-7(2) 6-3 7-5 in a second round thriller lasting four hours and 12 minutes.
The 27-year-old, ranked 112th in the world and without a title to his name, had few illusions about Nadal's fitness, with the Spaniard battling cramps while struggling to serve and chase down balls.
Smyczek played brilliantly for the most part, however, refusing to let the occasion or his opponent's travails distract him.
"That was really special tonight. It was pretty clear Rafa didn't have his best stuff," Smyczek, gracious in defeat, told reporters.
"But it just shows the kind of player, the kind of champion he is because 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.
"I think that's the longest I've sustained a level like that," he added. "I think throughout my career I've had flashes like that. But that's definitely one of the positives I'll take from it being able to sustain that for four and eight-ninths of a set."
Smyczek was bidding to match his best grand slam result, a third round appearance at the 2013 U.S. Open as a wildcard.
Heading back to the sparse crowds of the Challenger circuit will be a different feeling to playing in front of 15,000 at Rod Laver Arena but Smyczek was not complaining.
"Like I said earlier, the challengers really serve a very specific purpose," he said.
"It will be on me to go in there and really take care of business, try and pick up points and work on my ranking.
"So, yeah, it's definitely not going to be the same as playing a night session on Rod Laver. It's just part of the deal with being ranked 100 in the world. You've got to do it."
(Editing by Pritha Sarkar)