Third seed Rafael Nadal overcame illness and an inspired opponent to avoid a shock defeat in the second round of the Australian Open on Wednesday.
Nadal has never lost to a qualifier in a grand slam but looked on course to suffer that fate at the hands of American Tim Smyczek, the world number 112, on Rod Laver Arena.
The 28-year-old sought treatment from the tournament doctor early in the third set and looked physically drained as he failed to serve out the set at 5-4.
Smyczek then raced through the tie-break to take a two sets to one lead, producing a wide variety of winners that left Nadal shaking his head, including several leaping backhands struck with both feet well off the ground.
However, Nadal dug deep to force a decider and raised his game to pile the pressure on Smyczek, who saved break points in the first and seventh games to keep his nose in front.
That pressure finally told as Nadal broke for a 6-5 lead, but there was still time for more drama as a spectator shouted out just as the left-hander was serving at 30-0. The resulting fault looked set to stand, only for Smyczek to tell the umpire to replay the point.
Nadal won it to claim three match points, but was dragged back to deuce before finally getting over the line to complete a gutsy 6-2 3-6 6-7 (2/7) 6-3 7-5 win in four hours and 12 minutes.
“It was a very tough night for me,” Nadal said in an on-court interview. “I want to congratulate Tim because he was a real gentleman what he did in the last game. Not a lot of people would do something like this at 6-5 in the fifth. I think he played a great match.”
Nadal won his ninth French Open title last year, but lost in the fourth round of Wimbledon and then spent almost three months on the sidelines with a wrist injury that forced him to miss the US Open.
After returning to action the Spaniard was diagnosed with appendicitis and underwent an operation at the start of November, meaning he was telling anyone who would listen that he was not one of the favourites for the title due to his lack of preparation.
“It was a little bit humid today. I felt very tired after the first set and through the whole match,” Nadal added. “I don’t know what was going on. I had some cramps around the body in different places so that says I was not in perfect shape. It’s not normal after an hour.”