Bernard Tomic, the young Australian tennis star, won his third round match 4-6 7-6 7-6 2-6 6-3 at the Australian Open on Friday night in front of a packed Rod Laver Arena. His opponent, the crafty Ukrainian Alexandr Dolgopolov, was a tough match up from the start – ‘it’s like playing myself in the mirror’ – but the Australian won through in 5 sets.
The play was evenly matched – total points won: Tomic 174, Dolgopolov 174 – but, thanks to a partisan crowd and stronger belief, it was Tomic who was able to win the critical points and pass relatively unscathed to the next on-court challenge.
He nows plays Roger Federer in the fourth round, being the first teenager to reach the fourth round of a slam since Marin Cilic in Melbourne in 2008; will he be the first teen to beat Federer since Nadal at Roland Garros in 2005? No matter what the outcome, certainly Tomic will hope his tennis career trajectory proceeds in a similar fashion to the latter teenager.
What is more, whether the Australian wins or loses, his performance will certainly give Australians hope that they will once again have a presence at the top of the men’s tennis game.
Tomic is an unconventional player, mixing up pace with spin and direction like almost no other player – apart from, perhaps, Dolgopolov. He has what experts like to call ‘an excellent tennis brain’, meaning despite his young age, he is intelligent and tactical on the court.
It is Tomic’s ease when he strikes the ball, however, which is most startling – when he is on form, his racquet appears to sweep away the ball with as simple and effortless a stroke as swatting a fly, yet the ball covers the court with astonishing power and speed.
His one-handed backhand is almost as fluid, with plenty of vicious slice to get his opponent down low. As the past greats of the game must think when they see him play: ‘this is how tennis should be’.
Needless to say, there are echoes of Federer here, as Tomic himself highlights. Following his win against Dolgopolov and looking forward to his match with Federer, he concurred that Federer was a great inspiration, and his matches are those ‘you really want to sit down and watch’.
Tomic has already played against Federer in a Davis Cup tie on grass in Sydney, a match which Federer won with relative ease. But for Tomic to play his idol at his home grand slam event in front of what will doubtless be a super-charged 15,000-strong crowd is another step altogether. It will be both a steep learning curve, but also a great chance to show the world he really is one to watch.
This is not to say Tomic is flaky, however. Tomic showed his first hand on the world tennis stage in the summer of 2011 by progressing to the quarterfinal of the Wimbledon Championships, being beaten by the ultimate champion of the tournament, Novak Djokovic. With this he moved up 87 places in the world rankings, to number 71.
However, in his last tour match of 2011 at the Paris Bercy Masters, Tomic faltered against Frenchman Nicholas Muhut in a round of qualifying, in front of a small crowd and on what can only be described as a ‘peripheral’ court. No television, no Australian crowd, no extended support group – just an opponent, who he should beat, across the net.
Despite showing he had the skills to outmanouvre the Frenchman from all quarters, his heart did not seem in it, as he shook his head after every errand shot from his racquet and every winner from his opponent’s. To add insult to injury, his somewhat strong-willed father, John Tomic, walked out after the youngster was broken in just the first few games.
It just shows was surroundings can do for a player – or, rather, for that player’s support. Fast forward to Melbourne, only two months later, and Tomic is the darling of the first grand slam of the year. Same surface, same player, totally different response to adversity.
If Tomic is to succeed in the upper echelons of the game, he needs to be able to apply the same sort of strength as he has in Melbourne to matches like those in Bercy – learning to win in minor tournaments, and in early rounds, when only a few hundred people are watching. Then, perhaps, Tomic will become the darling of tennis the world over.