By Greg Stutchbury
MELBOURNE Jan 16 At times on Wednesday, Tim Smyczek thought he was playing against himself in a mirror. Only, the mirror image was just a little better.
The 25-year-old was actually facing world number five David Ferrer across the net on Margaret Court Arena, a player who the American has modelled his game on.
It's no surprise. The pair are of similar height at 1.75-metres and have a similarly slim build. Both run, and chase and get a lot of balls back in play.
The Spaniard, however, is about 120 places ahead of Smyczek in the world rankings and for the first nine games of their second round clash in the Australian Open, it showed.
Ferrer raced through the first set 6-0 in 25 minutes and when he went 3-0 up in the second the crowd were already preparing for the next match due on court.
Then, Smyczek won his first game, let out an almighty "Yes!", and the chasm between their respective rankings suddenly narrowed.
He was taking chances, making shots, getting more serves in - in his own words "taking it to" the Spaniard.
The lucky loser, who beat giant Croat Ivo Karlovic in the first round, dropped the second set 7-5 but took the third 6-4 to get the crowd behind him.
Ferrer, Spain's main hope in the absence of Rafa Nadal, then kicked back into gear to take the tie 6-0 7-5 4-6 6-3 in two hours, 38 minutes.
"It was tough match up. He was a better version of me," Smyczek told Reuters.
"I have kind of tried to model my game after his.
"He was doing things that I was looking at and thinking 'hey, I normally do that'," he added.
"He's just really fast and never gives you anything. The couple of times he did miss things I thought 'wow'.
"When I was down 6-0 3-0 I was thinking about the triple bagel (and) I was happy I made sure that didn't happen.
"From there on out I recognised that I was going to have to take more chances and for a while I made some great shots, but in the end he outlasted me.
"(But) I competed. I kept my head down and made him earn it. And I can definitely see that a positive and then go from there and use it as a springboard."
Smyzcek, whose family is of Polish origin, grew up in Wisconsin and moved aged 17 to train in Tampa, where he lived in a spare room in Mardy Fish's house for about a year.
College was not directly spoken about as he attempted to learn the game on the lower tier Futures and Challengers circuits, on which he said he had "made a living".
His brother Alec is an intellectual property lawyer and Smyczek said he was going to follow suit before his sibling told him to give tennis a shot.
"My brother actually talked me out of it," he said. "Tennis is what I love and I believed that I could make a jump. Maybe it's a pipe dream. It definitely feels like that sometimes.
"Hey, I don't have anything else to do right now. It's something I love and it beats getting a desk job."
Smyczek, who now shares a house with John Isner in Tampa, has enrolled at the University of Florida and studies economics to give him "something to do in my down time on the road".
"Some days I feel a bit stupid and know that I need to go to school," he said with a grin.
"I don't really have any idea about what I want to do after I finish tennis. But it will be something that requires me to go back to school. It definitely won't be a lawyer."
Smyczek, who reached the second round at last year's U.S. Open, made the main draw at Melbourne Park after Isner withdrew injured.
Practising against his 2.06-metre tall house mate had helped him combat the 2.08-metre Karlovic on Monday, but against Ferrer he realised he still had a lot of work to do to reach his goal of making the top 100.
"I felt like literally everything he did was the way that I construct points against guys. He gave me back some of my own medicine," he said.
"I think I'm on the right track but every aspect of my game needs to get a little bit better." (Editing by Martyn Herman)