Steve Flink: Tim Smyczek Heading Higher

At the end of this month—on December 30, to be precise—the highly regarded Tim Smyczek will turn 30. This much-admired American tennis player has built his lofty reputation largely around character. He is a sportsman of the highest order, a competitor of unimpeachable integrity who never sacrifices his sense of fair play, and a man who straightforwardly honors his profession with the way he goes about his business. Smyczek turned professional in 2006. He reached a career high of No. 68 in April of 2015.

At the moment, Smyczek stands at No. 130 in the ATP Rankings, but, unmistakably, he is on the upswing as he approaches a milestone birthday. The feeling grows that Smyczek will soon move back among the top 100 in the sport. His run through the end of the 2017 season was nothing short of remarkable. Competing in three Challenger tournaments as he concluded his campaign for the year, Smyczek captured two of the three events to secure a wildcard spot in the main draw at the 2018 Australian Open. That was no mean feat. Demonstrably, Smyczek brought out the best tennis he had played in a long while.

Last week, I interviewed Smyczek over the telephone, and found him in good form. At the outset of the conversation, he explained how he was able to turn his year around at the end, after enduring some tough setbacks along the way.

Smyczek told me, "It was as a rough year for me, but I had a turning point in the summer when I started working again with my old coach, Dustin Taylor. He had had gone back to work for the USTA, and they had been kind enough to allow me to work with him again. It just made a world of difference for me. The way the USTA is doing it these days, they assign players to coaches. Luckily, I was assigned to Dustin. Dustin had worked with me a few years ago for a couple of months, and we had stayed close as friends. He has been one of the more influential people in my tennis career."

They reunited in Washington over the summer, and immediately Smyczek noticed a difference in his tennis. He says, "Right away, I started to see changes in my game. He gave me this feeling of having a sense of purpose every time I walked out there. Whether it was practice or a match, we had a plan for how to get better on that day. For a number of months when I had played without a coach, that purpose had been missing."

Smyczek got rolling swiftly. In Montreal, he qualified before losing to the wily Roberto Bautista Agut in the first round of the main draw. A few weeks later, at the U.S. Open, he did not drop a set in the three qualifying rounds, but took on Philipp Kohlschreiber in the opening round of the main draw in New York. The German stylist picked him apart in straight sets, but the way Smyczek performed in both Canada and New York gave him considerable encouragement.

"I played very well in Montreal," he reflects, "and I also played some great tennis in New York. Unfortunately, I ran into Kohlschreiber, who is a guy who has given me a number of beatings over the years. He was one of the guys I did not want to see. But, coming away from New York, I knew I was playing really good tennis, and felt my game was headed in the right direction. I don't usually like to set goals that are too outcome-based, but winning the Aussie Open wildcard was one of them for me. I was in a good place mentally and, in those last three Challenger tournaments, it all came together for me. I had worked hard for several months."

And so Smyczek commenced his quest for the wildcard with an impressive tournament triumph in Charlottesville, Virginia. Recollecting that week which concluded on November 5, Smyczek mused, "It's funny, but I seem to play well when things are going well off the court. I had my wife there with me in Charlottesville. My sister lives in Baltimore, and she drove up the weekend before to spend a couple of days with us. Then I went out and had a tough first round [6-3, 3-6 6-3] against a guy [Mats Moraing] who hit a ton of aces and a ton of winners. It was a really uncomfortable match. I told Dustin afterwards that this is the kind of first round match you want. I had to fight through it. You would much rather have that happen in the first round, rather than in the semis, when the guys are a little sharper."

Next up for Smyczek was an encounter with countryman Bjorn Fratangelo. In that clash, Smyczek was outstanding as he prevailed 6-1, 6-2 over a formidable opponent. "It was just one of those days," he said, "where I could not miss if I tried. It was one of the best matches of my year. So, then I played Henri Laaksonen. We had an absolute grind of a first set, which I won in a tie-break. Then he hurt himself [Smyczek won 7-6(2), 2-1, ret.] so that was a nice one to get through. I played Stefan Kozlov in the semis. He is really good at making you feel uneasy. I came out and was playing really well. I actually was up 5-0 in the first set, and then he just completely changed his game."

It was time for Smyczek to reevaluate how he wanted to shape his strategy, and he did just that. "I won the first set but he took the second. It was a real battle in the third set. I had to make a few adjustments. He is real good at playing with slice and changing pace. At the end of the first set, and throughout the second, he was red-lining a lot of balls, hitting big serves and big first balls, and not letting me get into the points. He has the ability to play a lot of different ways, so I had to just fight it off and weather the storm. It turned out well for me [Smyczek won 6-3, 2-6, 6-2]."

In the final, Smyczek faced Tennys Sandgren, a fellow American for whom he has a lot of respect. "He is a good friend," says Smyczek. "He has won a ton of matches this year. We came out and played a real tough first set. I felt like I was getting to him a little bit, and finding a few cracks in his armor. He won the first set in a breaker, but I really felt I was getting somewhere. I came back to win the last two sets [Smyczek succeeded 6-7(5), 6-3, 6-2]. I felt like I kind of pulled away in the third set. I beat a lot of good players to win that tournament. It was a really great week. I realized I had taken the lead in the wildcard playoff, and that was a good feeling."

Now the front-runner, Smyczek knew it would be difficult to replicate his Charlottesville standards when he went the next week to the Challenger tournament at Knoxville, Tennessee. "I had talked with Dustin," he said, "and, coming off a week when I had played so well, I was bound to have a letdown. So, I kind of went into my first round match with Kozlov expecting not to play my best tennis. The first set was really ugly from both of us. We both fought really hard and then I got the better of him [7-6(3), 6-2]. He kind of ran out of steam. Then I won my next match, and faced Laaksonen in the quarters. He played a little differently than he had against me the week before. He played real high-risk tennis, and it worked out for him. He was too good that day."

Having lost that quarterfinal contest 7-6(1), 6-4, Smyczek moved on to Champaign, Illinois for the last of the Challenger tournaments that would determine the outcome of the Australian Open wildcard race. He recognized what was at stake, and met the challenge ably and convincingly.

"I knew," he reflects, "that going into the last tournament of the year, I could leave it all out there. I knew I was in the lead for that Aussie Open wildcard, and that there were a couple of guys who could catch me if they won the tournament. So, I tried not to think about those players too much, and just worried about the matches I had in front of me."

He secured three match victories in a row without the loss of a set, casting aside James Ward, Dennis Nevolo and Sandgren to reach the penultimate round. There he collided with Cameron Norrie, and Smyczek was the victor in a riveting skirmish 7-5, 6-7(5), 6-3.

"We just played a fantastic level of tennis, "recollects Smyczek. "It was a fun match to play against another guy who has had a fantastic year. Once I won that match, that sealed the Australian wildcard for me, so I could go into the final with not much pressure. It was nice to end the year on a high note. I felt I could play a little freer."

Smyczek confronted Fratangelo in that title round contest in Champaign, coming away with a 6-2, 6-4 triumph, securing the crown. Smyczek recalls, "Bjorn was a little bit hurt. He had tweaked his back in his previous match, so I won the first set relatively easily. We were on serve until 4-4 in the second set. It was neck and neck. He played well. I broke serve, and then served for the match at 5-4, but he had me down 15-40. That kind of scared me a bit, but, when you have won a lot of matches recently like I had, you don't get as stressed out about situations like that. I felt okay, and I was able to serve it out and win 6-2, 6-4."

Irrefutably, Smyczek is revitalized as he approaches his 30th birthday, and a quest in 2018 to take his game to a level he has never attained before. He has witnessed a cavalcade of players in recent years who have been resurgent in their early-to-mid thirties, competitors who have celebrated success beyond what they could ever have anticipated. How encouraging is that?

"If you had asked me five to seven years ago if I would still be playing now" he answers, "I would really have doubted it. But it is a testament to how far sports science has come. I feel I am in almost as good a shape now as I was at 25. I work very hard in the gym to stay strong and fast, but also, I do a ton of injury prevention stuff. About four years ago, I hired a physio to travel with me named Scott Clark. I split him with a couple of other guys. He is on the road with me about 25 weeks a year, and that has really extended the length of my career. He is in very high demand because, frankly, a lot of these other American guys have seen what he can do. Scott is a chiropractor by trade, but he also does massage and soft tissue work. He is a strength and conditioning specialist as well, so he is a bit of a jack-of-all-trades who has been essential for me."

As Smyczek moves toward his thirties, how would he describe his relationship with the younger American players. Do they seek his advice?

"Not really," he responds. "Frankly, I would probably not have done that when I was their age either. Tennis at the end of the day is still an individual sport, so I am happy to give some advice to the younger guys, but, at the same time, they are my competition. That is why tennis is unique. But I have a good relationship with all of the younger guys. I get along real well with Frances Tiafoe. He is a fantastic kid and a huge talent. I get along real well also with Jared Donaldson, Reilly Opelka and Tommy Paul. They are good kids who make me feel old sometimes! Taylor Fritz is another great kid who works very hard on the court. He is very talented and what you would call a ball striker. They are all really good guys."

Meanwhile, has he kept up with some of the players he grew up with among the Americans including Sam Querrey, Jesse Levine and Donald Young? Smyczek responds, "I have seen Sam at a fair number of tour events. We weren't really close in the juniors, so there is not a whole lot of reminiscing going on. And, quite frankly, he has had a different career trajectory than me, but we are friends. One of the guys I am still very close with is Alex Kuznetsov. He just moved to Dallas like I did, so we get to play golf together a lot. Donald Young I see a lot. He kind of keeps to himself. I have seen Jesse Levine a little bit in the last two years, because he was working a little bit with Madison Keys, and then doing some television work for a Canadian station. Other than that, I am one of the last guys still playing."

Competing as productively as he can makes it mandatory for Smyczek to be unwaveringly professional. That means being totally on top of things, and leaving no stone unturned. When the 5'9, 160 pound Smyczek watches players like Diego Schwartzman or David Goffin doing their thing, is he trying to draw from what they are doing?

"Absolutely," he replies. "It is almost as inspiring as watching a guy who is 35-years-old getting to a career high ranking, which we have seen a couple of times in the last few years. Dustin and I put our heads together a few months ago, and took a look at the stats leaders for certain categories on the ATP Tour. We looked at certain areas for those guys who are about my size, or have similar game styles. We figured out some things to definitely work on in the off season, like second serve points won, second serve return points won, and break points converted. I have tried to take a little something from those guys from the numbers."

But Smyczek and Taylor are looking at his game in a larger context as well, balancing the macro with the micro, searching for ways to make him a more efficient competitor in every respect.

"When I split with my last coach" he reflects, "I felt like I was standing still, or moving backwards. My game was a little one-dimensional. So, for several months, I tried to expand my game, and really learn how to play offense differently. When Dustin came back in the picture, he said I was doing it the wrong way, kind of playing offense like a big guy. He helped me figure out better ways to play offense. Whether it is pushing forward or laying back, it has been a lot of game management stuff we have been working on. When I was playing without a coach, I would walk off the court sometimes, having lost a match, but feeling like I had played well. So, I would be scratching my head, not really knowing what had happened. Since Dustin has been working with me again, I feel like I have gotten my ability back to think my way through matches."

Meanwhile, being married for two years has also been life-altering in many ways. His wife, Ana Pier, has given him a different outlook on the game in some ways, and a sense of increased stability as well.

"My wife has always pushed me to play a little longer," he says. "She would like to see me extend my career, and it has changed things. We just moved to Dallas to be a little closer to her family, and the great thing about it is I am very happy to leave her with her family when I go out on the road, and not stress out about leaving her at home the way I did when we lived in Tampa the last two years."

And yet, Pier will be with her husband in Australia, and she is able to make it to selected tournaments and thus cheer him on. As Smyczek explains, "She is a nurse and she works three twelve-hour shifts a week. So, she has gotten really good at grouping her shifts in such a way where she might have three days off at the end of one week, and four days off at the beginning of the next week. She is able to travel with me some. I bet she came to ten tournaments this past year. She is between jobs right now with the move to Texas. Being married offers you some perspective and balance in life. I can tell you I am always very eager to get off the road, and come home to her. It is very centering."

His wife envisions more seasons of significance ahead for Tim Smyczek. How does he see the next three to four years playing out in his career?

"I look at it this way: I love competing. There is going to be some kind of a void when I retire. I would like to keep it going for a while. But, at the same time, I am trying to be very pragmatic about it. At some point, it is going to make sense for me to turn the page and move on to the next chapter. It will hopefully be very clear when the right time is for me to leave. Maybe somebody will make me a job offer I can't refuse, and then I will retire. I would say, though, that I am looking forward to the next two years. Physically, I am feeling strong and mentally, I am in a good place. In 2018, I want to build on the momentum I have from the end of 2017. I really think I have a chance at besting my career high ranking."

When he returns to Melbourne for the Australian Open next month, many of Smyczek's most ardent admirers will think again of the stellar sportsmanship he demonstrated against Rafael Nadal, when they met in a second round match in 2015 at the season's first major.

Nadal was serving for the match at 6-5, 30-0 in the fifth set. A fan distracted Nadal as he was about to make contact with a first serve that landed well long. Smyczek held up two fingers to the umpire, asking that Nadal get another first serve to re-start the point. The Spaniard won the point for 40-0, lost the next three points, but finally came through to win the match, 7-5 in the fifth set.

Smyczek's extraordinary gesture was lauded by fans from every corner of the globe, and deeply appreciated by Nadal and his entourage. When I mentioned to Smyczek how grateful Nadal was about the American's sportsmanship, he said, "Of course he was going to [feel that way], because he is one of the classier players that we have seen. Tennis as a whole is really lucky to have him for so long at the top of the game. He embodies sportsmanship. He has been such a class act for so long. That match we had in Australia has stuck with me for a long time. Sometimes, it is a bit of a bummer that people remember me for a match I lost. People may forget that I played some great tennis that night. Rafa definitely did not have his best stuff, and he was hurting physically, but that was one of the better four-and-a-half hour stretches of tennis that I have played. I was very proud of that."

Tennis fans who have followed Tim Smyczek over the years are surely hoping that in 2018 he will win many matches of lasting consequence, and alter the way he is perceived out among the public. They want him to move beyond anything he has ever achieved across his career. I have an inkling that is exactly what will happen.

Read more articles by Steve Flink

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