Four hours into the fight Wednesday, Tim Smyczek, Packers fan from Milwaukee, was sticking with Rafael Nadal, greatest player of all time, at the Australian Open. It was one of those moments when you reach heights that. . .”He was sick and not playing well,” Smyczek said, trying to ruin the story.
Whatever. Nadal led 6-5, 30-love, fifth set. He tossed to serve and someone in the crowd screamed. It distracted him and he missed wildly. And then what? Here’s what: Smyczek secretly took the ball, stuffed it in his pocket, reached down and popped a hole in the seam with his fingernail. The ball turned to mush, which meant that it wouldn’t bounce much, negating Nadal’s wicked topspin.
Smygate! The American way! No wait. That’s not what happened. Smyczek didn’t Belichick the ball at all. What really happened was this: He told the chair umpire to let Nadal hit his first serve again. A do-over was not required under the rules. Nadal then served again and won the point. A few minutes later, Nadal won 6-2, 3-6, 6-7 (7-2), 6-3, 7-5.
Sportmanship lives. Smyczek did it at risk to his career moment. It was the right thing, wasn’t it? Because it stands in such stark contrast to the big story in sports today: the New England Patriots deflating 11 of the 12 footballs used in the AFC title game, theoretically to fit better into the small hands of Patriots quarterback Tom Brady.
“What he did at the end of the fifth was just amazing,” Nadal said afterward, talking about Smyczek, not New England coach Bill Belichick. “Very few players can do that after four hours. . .He’s a great example, what he did today.”
This is about who we are and whether what we respect and believe in
are the things we say we respect and believe in. No one has been able yet to pin down that Belichick had anything to do with the footballs being deflated. At the same time, everyone assumes he did and wonders what other sneaky, cheating moves Spygate Bill has committed. Already, CBSSports.com is citing unnamed Baltimore Ravens players as saying the Patriots deflated footballs against them, too.
Belichick is now in the Super Bowl again, this time against Seattle, whose coach, Pete Carroll, left college for the pros after he was caught cheating as USC’s coach.
If they had a Mount Rushmore of coaches, Belichick would be up there, probably looking over the shoulder suspiciously of the stone carving of Vince Lombardi.
Smyczek is a journeyman pro, ranked No. 112. He’s 27 years old and will never win a major or even come close. He has won three Challenger-level events, which is roughly the top minor league.
Results matter, of course. And you can’t expect a fringe touring tennis pro to be held in the same light as a guy who has won several Super Bowls.
The question is which side of this story we really do respect. We caĺl for sportsmanship, but at the same time, I did teach my son how to throw an elbow to the ribs under the basket in hoops without the officials seeing it.
Yes, it takes fair play to be a winner, but it also takes an edge. A ruthlessness. And much like fans look at the academics of their favorite college football teams, it is only an afterthought. Win first. Graduate later, if you like.
But you teach sportsmanship, too. Don’t cheat, but throw an elbow to let them know you’re there. It’s not an easy balance, maybe even a sliding scale. Never call an opponent’s ball out when it’s in, but drill your opponent in the chest when he’s at the net if you can.
I suspect that as a society, we complain when we see bad sportsmanship but deep down respect where that’s coming from.
ESPN analyst Darren Cahill pointed out the other day that Maria Sharapova’s grunt, as a match goes on, starts to last longer and longer all the way until her opponent is hitting the ball. Much like the fan who yelled while Nadal served, Sharapova is yelling while her opponent is hitting.
I have not seen her apologize for distracting her opponent or saying to play the point over. Some people complain about her grunting, but more people are paying Sharapova, who makes millions on the court for her ruthlessness and guts.
“I thought it was the right thing to do,” Smyczek said.
It was the nice thing, anyway.