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Steve Flink: Tomic ready to make serious move in 2013

1/19/2013 1:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

When Bernard Tomic burst into prominence in 2011, I was among his biggest boosters. That was a memorable season for the precocious Australian. At 19, he was the youngest player to finish in the year-end top 100 on the ATP computer, winning 16 of 31 matches that year, closing the campaign deservedly at No. 42 in the world. Most importantly, he qualified and then surged into the quarterfinals of the world’s preeminent tennis tournament at Wimbledon, toppling Sweden’s Robin Soderling to record his first win over a top ten player, falling in the last eight against none other than Novak Djokovic.

I watched a large chunk of that contest over on Court 1 on a balmy afternoon at the All England Club, and Tomic was awfully impressive. Djokovic had lost only one match all year heading into that appointment, and he was on his way to capturing three of the “Big Four” tournaments in a season of near-invincibility. And yet, Tomic was not the least bit intimidated by his estimable adversary. Djokovic would win that tournament convincingly, toppling Rafael Nadal in a four set final. But Tomic made the eventual champion uncomfortable. Tomic’s variety off the ground was remarkable. He took considerable sting off his shots in rally after rally, but then would catch Djokovic off guard repeatedly by stepping up the pace decidedly, winning points with unexpected velocity from the back of the court. Djokovic prevailed in four tumultuous sets, but his discomfort during that clash was unmistakable.

Tomic was poised to become not only the next great Australian competitor, but one of the best in the world as well. It seemed entirely possible that he would reach at least the top 20 in the world in 2012, and perhaps climb a bit higher on the worldwide charts. But many things went wrong for this young player over the course of a disappointing campaign a year ago. He lost more matches than he won (26-27), dropped ten places in the rankings to No. 52, seldom did himself justice. After losing in the round of 16 at the Australian Open to Roger Federer, Tomic failed to make it beyond the second round of the next three majors. In the second round of the U.S. Open against Andy Roddick, he gave such a desultory performance that even the affable and tolerant Australian Davis Cup captain Patrick Rafter felt compelled to call Tomic out publicly for an unprofessional display.

All in all, 2012 was a virtual washout for Tomic. He was largely in disarray. But Tomic commenced 2013 in a far better frame of mind. Fitter, fresher and more purposeful, he headed into his third round meeting last night against Federer with growing assurance. At the Hopman Cup in Perth, he stunned Djokovic and won all of his matches in that exhibition team event. To be sure, Djokovic was not unduly concerned about that loss, knowing it would not count in the record books. To the Serbian, Hopman Cup was merely a tune-up, and nothing more.

But for Tomic, that win provided him with a dose of confidence. It carried him unscathed through the rest of that week, and then set the stage for his first ever official title on the ATP World Tour. Tomic was victorious in Sydney, stopping the experienced South African Kevin Anderson in a hard fought final. That title run lifted Tomic back to No. 43 in the world, carried him into the Australian Open with gusto, and demonstrated that he had recovered some self-conviction.

But despite his terrific start to 2013, Tomic knew full well that many authorities now expected at least a strong showing from the Australian in his fourth career duel with the redoubtable Federer. In their first showdown two years ago in Davis Cup, Tomic extended the Swiss to four sets on grass. But then Federer crushed Tomic in the round of 16 at the Australian Open a year ago, and took apart the Australian easily again at Cincinnati in the summer of 2012. Last night, it was time for Tomic to validate his status as a champion in the making, to demonstrate his authenticity. This was going to be a comprehensive test of how far Tomic has come over the last few months, and where he might be headed.

Tomic discovered after a straight sets defeat against a top of the line Federer that he must keep working diligently on his game, and he also found out that he would do well to cease with all of his “trash talk”. He had made some disrespectful comments about Federer leading up to last evening’s skirmish. First, he sarcastically questioned whether Federer would even make it to the third round since the world No. 2 had to first upend Nikolay Davydenko in the second round. Once Federer had accounted for Davydenko with ease, Tomic told the media that this was the “perfect time” to play Federer.

Frankly, I don’t believe Tomic was intentionally attempting to goad Federer. Surely he is well aware that Federer is imperturbable. But why raise Federer’s level of motivation? The Swiss loves competing under any circumstances, relishes the remaining challenges he has in the game, welcomes the opportunity to put himself on the line against the younger generation. He remains zestful and astonishingly quick for a man approaching his 32nd birthday in seven months. And it was evident from the outset of his showdown with Tomic that Federer was in one of his inspirational moods. There was a quiet spark in his demeanor, a shotmaking wizardry designed for moments like this, an almost palpable desire to play the game majestically. Federer did just that.

In dissecting Tomic 6-4, 7-6 (5), 6-1, Federer was virtually letter perfect. As was the case in his first two matches of this Australian Open, Federer did not lose his serve. He faced only one break point against Tomic. He kept probing with his returns. His side to side movement along the baseline was nothing short of stupendous. But the fact remains that Tomic played decidedly better than the score would indicate, particularly in the second set. In my view, the second set was the single best set played in the entire tournament thus far. But Tomic was confronting an unshakable character. The Australian crowd was plainly and passionately behind their man, but Federer kept them from erupting by fundamentally controlling the climate of the match. He dazzled the crowd with the size of his imagination.

The opening game of this encounter was crucial. Tomic dealt himself a harmful blow. He could not afford to allow a great front runner like Federer the luxury of an early service break, but the Australian fell into that trap. Federer was primed for the occasion, releasing three winners to reach 30-40. But on the break point, Federer played it relatively safe, chipping a backhand down the middle without keeping that shot particularly low or deep. Tomic went for a forehand inside-in, but missed. Federer had the quick break he wanted, and he would not be threatened all set long on his own serve. At 4-3, the Swiss did waste a 40-0 lead as Tomic rallied to deuce, but he held on confidently from there. Federer had three set points on Tomic’s serve in the ninth game but the Australian profited from some lapses by his renowned adversary. Federer cast that disappointment aside and served out the set at 5-4. After serving a double fault to trail 15-30, Federer connected with three excellent first serves in a row. The first one enabled him to move in and put away a volley, and the next two were un-returnable.

Federer had taken the set 6-4. But Tomic came out fighting with high intensity in the second set. He saved a break point in the opening game with a scorching inside-out forehand that provoked an error from an off balance Federer. The Australian erased a break point in the third game as well. At 4-4, Tomic was in dangerous territory once more, holding on with temerity from 15-40, wiping away three more break points. Serving at 5-5, Tomic found himself down break point again, but he cracked a forehand winner and held on again. In six games on his delivery across that engrossing second set, Tomic had faced no fewer than six break points in four different service games but he refused to buckle, holding on every time.

But, contrastingly, Federer’s rhythmic precision on serve was giving the Swiss breathing room. He conceded only five points in his six service games. In the second set tie-break, Tomic served exceedingly well. He did not miss a first serve in the entire sequence, and backed his delivery up skillfully. Tomic moved to 4-1, and then served at 5-3, hoping to reach triple set point. The two spirited competitors had a captivating 29 stroke exchange. On the ninth shot of that scintillating rally, Tomic drilled a flat two-hander forcefully up the line, and Federer somehow responded with a brilliantly controlled forehand slice under duress. Ultimately, Tomic missed a forehand down the line wide. The shot was not in the cards. He had run out of options.

Federer took that tie-break 7-5, winning four points in a row at the end in a clutch display. An understandably deflated Tomic could not stay with Federer in the third set. After Federer held from break point down in the opening game, he pulled away inexorably. Federer was a 6-4, 7-6 (5), 6-1 victor. And yet, Tomic need not despair about his performance. He competed well, even in the final set when his legs were worn out. His growing level of aggression off the ground was extraordinary. His backhand down the line was whistling into the corner. His running forehand down the line was remarkable. He served commandingly, played with poise.

The fundamental problem for Tomic was quite simply the pride and panache of Roger Federer. Federer’s location on his serve was almost out of this world. His forehand was humming, landing wherever he wanted it to go, coming through for him whenever it counted. Federer took his Tomic assignment with utter seriousness. There was no hint of overconfidence from the 17 time major champion. Rather, Federer went about his business fully respecting the diversified talent of his opponent. He might not have played as brilliantly if he did not believe Tomic was such a worthy adversary.

Tomic was clinically dispatched by a prodigious champion. There was no shame in that. My feeling is that he is going to improve markedly over the course of the 2013 season. He should conclude the year entrenched among the top 15 in the world, and then take his place in the top 10 next year. He will one day join the elite as a champion at a major event—perhaps in his country’s showcase tournament. Bernard Tomic will not turn 21 until October. His best tennis is two to three years ahead of him. To be sure, Tomic was comprehensively defeated by Roger Federer, humbled in many ways, reminded that talking a good game is one thing but backing up your claims is much more difficult. Federer taught Tomic a valuable lesson last night, but the Australian will surely learn from this loss. His time will come.
Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for since 2007. You can purchase Steve's latest book "The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time" here.