A Competitive Advantage

This week, the nation’s focus has centered on whether the New England Patriots attempted to gain a competitive advantage by circumventing the rules of the NFL. The story involves how footballs used by the Patriots in the first half of their AFC Championship Game became under-inflated. An under-inflated football can be an advantage for a quarterback trying to throw passes in poor weather conditions. The story resulted in a media frenzy and seemingly nonstop national coverage.

There was far less attention on a polar opposite story this week — a professional athlete who deliberately acted to give his opponent a competitive advantage.

You know the names of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady.

What about Tim Smyczek? (pronounced Smee-check) Have you heard of him?

Tim Smyczek is the 112th-ranked men’s tennis player in the world. “Smee”, as he is called, is a 27-year-old Wisconsin native. While he captured a couple of events on the next lower level Challenger Series in 2012, he has never won an ATP World Tour event. His career ATP singles record is 22-40.

In 2013, Smyczek qualified for the Australian Open as the last entry in the field and went out in the 2nd round. This year, he again qualified for the Australian Open and on Wednesday, he found himself in a second round match with Rafael Nadal, the 3rd-ranked player in the world.

Smyczek had never defeated a Top-10 player and here he was facing a 14-time Grand Slam winner.

But, this competition would become one to remember.

Competing Fairly and Honorably

With Rafael Nadal struggling much of the match with nausea, dizziness, and fatigue, Tim Smyczek took advantage. After losing the first set 6-2, Smyczek won the 2nd set and took a lead in the match winning the 3rd set on a tiebreaker.

Now, anyone familiar with Rafael Nadal knows his tremendous will to win. “Rafa” refused to let his physical struggles prevent him from competing. He fought back to win the 4th set to tie the match and force a deciding 5th set.

The match had already lasted more than four hours when Nadal served for the match ahead 6-5 in the set, and up 30-love. When Nadal tossed the ball and began his serve, a fan yelled out. The noise disrupted Nadal’s timing and his serve went long. It was a break for Smyczek. Just two points from losing the match, he now likely would face an easier-to-return second serve from Nadal.

But, then Smyczek did something unusual. He got the attention of the chair umpire and put two fingers in the air. He wasn’t giving the peace sign or the V sign. And he wasn’t requesting a bogus medical timeout. Tim Smyczek was indicating to the umpire that Rafael Nadal should get a do-over and still be on his first serve. To the cheers of the crowd looking on, the umpire made the announcement that Nadal would be on a first serve. Nadal showed his appreciation for the sportsmanlike gesture giving Smyczek the thumbs up.

Nadal went on to win the point. While Smyczek staved off three match points to get back to deuce, Nadal took next two points to win the match, 6-2, 3-6, 6-7 (2), 6-3, 7-5.

Praise for Smyczek

In his on-court interview following the match, Rafael Nadal made a point to congratulate Smyczek for his sportsmanship. “I want to congratulate Tim — he’s a real gentleman for what he did in that last game. Not a lot of people will do this at 6-5 in the fifth.”

Smyczek downplayed the act suggesting Nadal would have done the same.

But, Nadal’s public relations manager, Benito Perez-Barbadillo, was effusive in his praise of Smyczek. He called it a class act and the kind of sportsmanship that kids should see. He told the New York Times:

I think he deserves the sportsmanship award for the next 10 years…I’m sure that Rafa would agree and everybody would agree. I’ve never seen that, and I’ve been in tennis for 19 years. Unbelievable.Benito Perez-Barbadillo

A Decision Based on Values

Here is what I like best about this story.

When asked why he would act as he he did, knowing it would diminish his chances of winning in such a close match, Smyczek told the Sydney Morning Herald:

I just tried to think about what I would have hoped my opponent would do if the roles were reversed…It just seemed like the right thing to do.Tim Smyczek

In an interview the next day with the newspaper, Smyczek spoke to a core message of Even Field, that The Way You Win Matters.

I just think most situations are very black and white – there’s almost always a right thing to do and a wrong thing to do. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t compete really hard or do everything within the rules to win. But most situations in sport are black and white, there is right and wrong.Tim Smyczek

As for his belief in fair and honorable competition, Smyczek acknowledged that many players would not have acted as he did. But, he explained that he, his brother, and his sister were raised to behave a certain way. He sheepishly told the New York Times, “I know my parents would have killed me if I didn’t”…”It was the right thing to do.”

Character in Sports and Life

This week, if your kids ask you what “DeflateGate” is all about, you can use the opening to talk about integrity and the value of competing on an even playing field.

And, you can tell them about Tim Symczek’s character-driven decision in the heat of competition, a decision based on a simple belief.

“It was the right thing to do.”

Photo Credit: Matt via Flickr

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