Bud with Australia's leading and most influential wine critic, Jeremy Oliver

Bud with Australia’s leading and most influential wine critic, Jeremy Oliver

“It was a dream,” said Ryan Sweeting.

Ryan Sweeting, a tall Floridian who plays tennis for a living – and says he does make a living, $ 164,423 last year – walked onto the blue asphalt court of Rod Laver Arena and looked up and around.  People. Everywhere people – 15,000 them.  Staring at him.

Of course they were also looking at the other guy, who happened to be named Rafa Nadal, the No. 1 guy in their business.  This was Thursday, a second round encounter in the Australian Open.  There was something of a disparity in incomes, if not accomplishments.  Nadal, who also plays for a living, collected $ 10,171, 998 prize money in 2010, not to mention the millions in endorsements.

Nadal had no idea of who 23-year-old Sweeting was.   “I never saw him.  My uncle [coach Tony Nadal] was watching his match the other day.  He knows what he do better, what he do worse. With his tall he can serve much better.”

This was the first time Sweeting had seen Nadal in person.  On being introduced, Nadal ran onto the court like a hungry lion and the arena rang with cheers and “Vamos. Rafa!”  Sweeting, who played a year for the University of Florida before turning pro in 2007, received generous – sympathetic? –applause like a man walking to the gallows.

“It was the biggest crowd I ever played for.  Definitely a great experience.  It was a dream,” Ryan repeated.

Winning wine of the 2011 Old Bottles Lunch, a 1966 Chateau-Lascombe Margaux

Winning wine of the 2011 Old Bottles Lunch, a 1966 Chateau-Lascombe Margaux

Not many guys would feel dreamy about taking away four games in three sets.  But Sweeting, who ranks 115 lengths behind Rafa at No. 116 accepted it for what it was: a rare chance to go against the best on “the big stage,” as he called it, in a major championship.

“It never happened to me before.  I played the Grandstand at Flushing Meadows once, and the Center Court at Washington, but nothing like this, nobody like Rafa.  The closest thing, as far as playing somebody goes, is another Spaniard with all that spin is Fernando Verdasco.

“I had some nerves at the start, but that went away,” says Sweeting, beaten, 6-2, 6-1, 6-1, breaking serve only once.  He played well — but Rafa is a nightmare among dreamers, who can make you pleased at reaping four games.

Here’s what the 6-foot-4 inch Ryan says about the experience.  “Mentally he wears you down.  He’s so fast and so strong that he gets there and gets the ball back and deep, and you have to start all over again. You have to win the point two or three times in order to get to 15 love.  He’s not going to give away anything free.  Every time he made an unforced error – not often – I was relieved and happy. Mentally it’s draining.  Physically, too.  I’m breathing hard.  I’m running, running, running just to get a point.

“He’s focused, bouncing up and down every point.  He’s going to try to beat you, 6-love, 6-love, 6-love.  I grew up watching him on TV, winning majors, playing unbelievable tennis, hitting unbelievable shots.  To be on the other side of the net hitting those shots against me was intimidating.”

Peking duck in fantastic BBQ House on Victoria Street

Peking duck in fantastic BBQ House on Victoria Street

Sweeting, whose best wins have been over James Blake, Ollie Rochus and French Davis Cupper Michael Llodra, registered three tough victories to qualify, and a first round decision over No. 60, Spaniard Daniel Gimeno-Traver to inflate the dream.

He was dressed in bright yellow cap, shirt and shoes along with white shorts – same as the ball kids.  Soon enough he was chasing more balls than the kids.  His cap was pointed backwards, a bad sign in that Ryan double faulted on the first point and kept going in that direction.

Never mind. He was where a man in his line of work yearns to be – up against the biggest heat in the biggest league. Ryan also had his biggest payday: $ 43,440 and a dream to remember. He can live a while on that.

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