Rohit at the Australian Open: Sporting Smyczek represents the best part of sport

Sitting at Melbourne airport, his Australian Open over, his flight to America delayed, amidst the clanking of restaurant cutlery, Tim Smyczek laughs on Skype as he's interviewed by Melbourne Age writer Peter Hanlon and me.

He's a "little bit surprised" by the attention he's got. He's 27, he played five sets with Rafael Nadal on Wednesday night, he lost, yet this man somewhat unheard of is now memorable, this player unheralded now has a phone full of congratulatory texts, this athlete ranked No.112 is now widely applauded.

Not because of a shot he hit - and he hit many brilliant ones - but because of a gesture he made.

Deep in the fifth set, Nadal hits a wondrous passing shot. The match is tense, it's tight, this could be Smyczek's greatest day, his only day, and yet he applauds Nadal. Claps his racket in appreciation. It's an easy, natural gesture from Smyczek and yet so few do it, in any sport, at any time. It's much easier now to demean an opponent then to admire him amidst competition.

Smyczek is not done. At 6-5, down 30-love in the fifth set, as Nadal serves for the match, an idiot calls out just as he strikes the ball and it disturbs him. Nadal's first serve is a fault. It is bad luck. It is unfortunate. It is life in sport now where spectators intrude on the play.

Smyczek is not expected to intervene, it is not his fault, no one will think poorly of him if he stays silent. Furthermore, he knows his tired, almost dizzy opponent is just holding on. Facing a second serve, at this juncture, is in fact to his advantage. It suits Smyczek to do nothing. Till he does something.

He tells Nadal to take two more serves, to replay the point, to hit the first serve again. It is almost unthinkable and thus it is beautiful.

Nadal serves a first serve again. Smyczek loses the point. Then the match.

Now, the next morning, at the airport, the self-deprecating American is a trifle nonplussed by the attention. The beauty of his extraordinary act is the fact that he himself considers it ordinary. As if this is, well, the only way to play sport.

"I guess it's the way my parents raised me", he said, before adding: "I spoke to my mom late last night, but we didn't really talk about (the gesture)." He laughed and continued: "Honestly I don't think they were that impressed by it. Hopefully they were proud of it, but hopefully not surprised either."

In the heat of competition, in a planet obsessed with winning, athletes don't always reach for and find their decent selves. But for Smyczek there seemed no inner dispute on what to do. "I just think," he said, "that most situations are very black and white. There's almost always a right thing to do and a wrong thing to do." What he does not say is that he made the right choice not the wrong one.

"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. I'm certain that Rafa would have done the same thing."

Tennis, he knows, has been fortunate to be led by men who have set a refined standard of behaviour. As he said: "You have to look no further than Rafa. Tennis has been very lucky for the last 10 or so years to have him. He exhibits that kind of sportsmanship on a daily basis. The sport is really lucky to have him."

Yet he also accepted that sportsmanship, an idea spoken about constantly yet rarely displayed, is in decline. Thus every act and every gesture matters. As he said: "(Sportsmanship) is maybe dying a little bit in sport, but I think that if maybe a young tennis player or even a young non-tennis player got to see a little bit of the match last night, hopefully that can have a positive effect on them, plant a bit of a seed. That would be great."

The match done on Wednesday night, Smyczek returned to his world, which in this case involved a different locker room from Nadal.

Maybe he did not hear Nadal praise him later, for the Spaniard said: "I congratulate (Tim). I say it on the court, but I want to say here, too. Very few players can do that after four hours-something of match, 5-6, Love-30. So, just will say thanks to him because he's a great example, what he did today."

But what Smyczek will never forget is their meeting at the net when the match concluded. "I didn't actually see (Nadal) afterwards, but he told me "thank you" at the net when we were shaking hands. It was a cool moment, I'll definitely remember that."

As we will remember him.

rohitb@sph.com.sg