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Steve Flink: Tomic looks for a new beginning

6/29/2013 7:00:00 PM

WIMBLEDON—These last few months have not been the best of times for Bernard Tomic. The 20-year-old Australian had already endured his share of disappointments and unexpected setbacks as he tried to make inroads on the ATP World Tour, and then, in many ways, and surely to his chagrin, Tomic was forced to confront the dilemma of a father who did not understand the boundaries of good taste and decorum. John Tomic was arrested after an incident in Madrid when he allegedly head-butted a practice partner of Bernard’s, and subsequently banned from attending the French Open. He will not be coming through the gates of Wimbledon either, although he is consulting with his son. Although Bernard has stood by his father steadfastly, the fact remains that it could not have been easy to have a parent wander into trouble with the law. Nor could it have been a comfortable situation for Bernard to have his Dad barred from tournaments and treated like the obstreperous character that he clearly is.

But this complicated young man is enormously gifted. His innate sense of how to read the plot of a tennis match is undeniable. His court vision is outstanding. Leave aside the off court problems he has endured not only with his father but on his own behalf, and then understand that this is a player with immense potential. Today, at the game’s centerpiece event, on the most renowned court in the world, Tomic recorded one of the most important victories of his young career when he upended the No. 9 seed Richard Gasquet of France 7-6 (7), 5-7, 7-5, 7-6 (5) in the third round. For the second time in his career, Tomic will be around for the second week of the most prestigious tournament in the world, and he will meet 2010 finalist Tomas Berdych on Monday in the round of 16; in 2011, Tomic reached the quarterfinals and lost to eventual champion Novak Djokovic in four sets.

Tomic needed this victory in the worst possible way after a season that had been less than stellar. He had opened his campaign auspiciously with his first Tour-level title in Sydney, halting Kevin Anderson in the final. He had a reasonably good Australian Open before bowing against Roger Federer in the third round. But his record has been unimpressive ever since. He came into this tournament ranked No. 59 in the world, a status that is not on the level where he belongs. But Tomic recorded a gritty five set opening round win here against Sam Querrey, and then accounted for James Blake in a straight set, second round contest. He knew full well that he had the game to bother Gasquet, and yet the Frenchman had beaten Tomic in both of their career head-to-head showdowns.

This was one of the better matches of the 2013 Wimbledon, and the margin between victory and defeat was astonishingly thin. Both players broke serve only once. Gasquet won 160 points in the encounter while Tomic won only 147. Tomic served 19 aces while Gasquet had 15. Gasquet made good on 70% of his first serves and won 85%; Tomic connected with 81% of his first serves and won 75% of those points. Furthermore, Gasquet won 63% of his second serve points while Tomic won only 47% in that category. Gasquet made 25 unforced errors, two more than Tomic. And Gasquet produced no fewer than 73 winners, while Tomic hit 60 winners. All in all, the statistics favored Gasquet, so why did Tomic prevail in the end?

The answer is this: Tomic came through on the biggest points and made his presence known when it really counted. The first crucial point of the contest occurred with Tomic serving at 5-6 in the opening set. Tomic was set point down in that critical twelfth game, but he worked his way out of danger with a first serve released at 117 MPH that went wide to the Gasquet backhand. Gasquet missed the return. On they went to a tie-break. Tomic had a set point at 6-5 but Gasquet saved it. Then Gasquet went ahead 7-6, but Tomic saved a set point with an ace. In the end, Tomic took that sequence 9-7.

The second set was hard fought as well. With Gasquet serving at 4-5, the Frenchman saved two set points, forcing Tomic into a passing shot error on the first, cancelling the second with an ace. Gasquet held on after four deuces and then broke the Australian in the following game. Gasquet held at love with an ace to take the set 7-5. Just like that, it was one set all, after Tomic had twice been a point away from a two set lead. The battle in the third set was similarly close. But Gasquet lost his serve at 5-6 despite missing only one first serve in that game. He was broken at 30. Tomic had taken a two sets to one lead with the one timely break at the end of the third.

Both players held onto their serves sedulously all the way through the third set, setting up another tie-break. Tomic moved swiftly into a 4-1 lead before Gasquet took the next two points on serve. Tomic advanced to 6-3 before Gasquet claimed two more points on his own serve. But Tomic was totally unyielding in this sequence. Leading 6-5 and match point on his serve, he sent a 122 MPH first serve wide to the Gasquet backhand, and the Frenchman erred on the return. Tomic had come through handsomely when it really counted to claim a well-deserved, four set triumph, and had done so because he refused to buckle on the points that mattered the most. It was just about as simple as that.

“It’s a huge win for me,” said Tomic when it was over. “I’m very, very happy. I played very well today, and I needed to against Richard. The last two times, he beat me. I knew I had to stay in the whole match with him. He is one of the fittest players out there. He can do the same thing over three, four, five hours. I had to stay with him the whole match. I was holding comfortably. He was holding comfortably. I took my chances at the right time.”

That was a good assessment. Asked about the role his father is playing during this event, Bernard explained, “He is helping me at this tournament. We are doing the right things. This is why the results are showing off now. I’m not doing it on my own. My Dad is still involved. That’s why I have gotten to where I am in this tournament and the results have shown.”

He was asked if he called his father straight after the match, and replied, “Yeah, I called my Dad. He was very happy. To beat a player like Richard is not easy. I talked to my Dad and he said I did the right things to have a chance of beating Richard. Now I’m playing someone different, Tomas Berdych, who is a very, very good player. I’m going to have to study up on that and work with my team and my Dad to give myself the best chance of winning.”

The hope here is that Tomic can sort through all of his difficulties and build on his success here at Wimbledon to have a productive summer. That he is willing to defend his father and stand by him so unabashedly is admirable in one sense, but he must also realize where his Dad went wrong and learn from that as well. His father has behaved badly. He was not doing his son any favors by going so far over the top with his conduct. In fact, both Bernard and his father must learn from what happened and not pretend it is someone else’s fault. Both father and son need to be realistic about that and fully come to terms with it. Too many tennis parents step way outside the boundaries of decency and decorum and get in the way of their children’s goals.

Tomic has a chance to move beyond it all and become a great player. His ball control is excellent. His court sense is uncanny. His match playing prowess was on rich display against Gasquet. Berdych had a problem with his shoulder before cutting down Kevin Anderson in a four set, third round match. He is the clear favorite to beat Tomic on Monday. But Tomic can make that battle entirely competitive. He is playing with house money now after moving on to the second week. But what really matters is not simply what happens when Tomic meets Berdych, but how the young Australian performs over the coming months. If he tends to his business and his father can stay out of further trouble, if he keeps working hard and striving for the best, if he can keep his mind on the tennis court and nothing else, Bernard Tomic will be a top 20 player by the end of this year, and a candidate for the top ten in 2014. But if he does not stay absolutely on task, he will be wasting an awful lot of ability.

That would be a shame.
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.