by Steve Flink
For too long now, Australia has not had a major presence in the men’s game. To be sure, Lleyton Hewitt is still out there giving it his all, but the 2001-2002 world No. 1 will never be close to the player he once was. Patrick Rafter is long gone. The public “Down Under” has been craving a player who can capture their imagination and carry their nation forward with a sense of exhilarating possibilities. The view here is that they have found a newcomer who can indeed take the future into his hands, a competitor who has the capacity for greatness, an 18-year-old who plays the game distinctively and creatively. His name is Bernard Tomic, and trust me on this: he is going places.
I watched Tomic confront the one and only Rafael Nadal last night in the third round of what has been a compelling Australian Open, and the Spaniard unsurprisingly recorded a 6-2, 7-5, 6-3 victory over his precocious adversary. Nadal gave Tomic a lesson in the art of match play, and taught his opponent quite a bit about how to play the big points and what to do under duress. The Spaniard was typically professional and perspicacious. But he was apprehensive as well, made uneasy by the wide array of stuff Tomic was throwing at him, taken out of his customary ground stroke rhythm by the variety of the audacious Aussie, forced out of his comfort zone most of the way by an imaginative if sometimes immature adversary. Nadal compounded his problems by having a poor serving night by his standards. But that, too, may have been a question of nerves from the towering world No. 1; he never quite knew what to expect from the diversified Tomic.
Let’s examine the match. It was apparent from the outset that Nadal was struggling with his confidence and execution. The Spaniard had Tomic down 15-40 in the opening game but did not convert. Nadal had to save a break point himself in the second game before he held on for 1-1. Nadal briefly found his range in the third game, breaking Tomic at 15 with a trademark inside-out forehand winner. He held comfortably for 3-1, and then reached break point for 4-1. That opportunity evaporated as Nadal left a forehand return hanging too short, allowing Tomic to drive an inside-out forehand into a wide open space for a winner. Tomic eventually held for 2-3, but that would be the last game he would win in the set.
Even so, it was still not smooth or easy sailing for the industrious Nadal, who could not get on top of the rallies with any regularity. Tomic had him off balance with his mixture from the baseline, and his unrelenting depth off both sides. At 2-4, Tomic rallied from 15-40 to deuce before Nadal got the insurance break. Nadal held on to win the set 6-2, but it was not a morale boosting start. The score was on his side, but he was not dictating the flow of the match. Before he knew exactly what had hit him, Nadal was in trouble. In the opening game of the second set, Nadal made a pair of forehand unforced errors that signaled his continuing woes. Tomic held for 1-0 with an ace, and sensed a chance to get his teeth into the match. Nadal double faulted at 15-15 in the second game, slicing his second delivery inexplicably wide down the T.
That opened a window for Tomic, who got the break for 2-0 with back to back winners, driving a two-handed backhand pass up the line exquisitely, then hitting a flat forehand behind Nadal to set up a forehand down the line into the clear. Just like that, it was 2-0 for the Australian, and he held at love for 3-0, closing that game with consecutive aces. Nadal was quietly yet unmistakably perturbed, and he served another double fault at 0-3, 15-15, sending this one tamely into the net. From 30-30 in that game, Tomic was magnificent, releasing a crosscourt forehand winner that was well disguised, then coming up with a lethal inside-out forehand that Nadal scraped back deep down the middle. Tomic calmly and purposefully went for the same shot again, driving this forehand out of the Spaniard’s reach for a timely and outright winner.
Here was Tomic at 4-0, seemingly poised to take a set off the greatest player in the game of tennis. But Nadal is not the world No. 1 solely because of his head; he resides at the top because he probably has more heart than anyone who has ever played the sport. He knew he wanted to avoid a one set all deadlock against a big underdog in this kind of a setting. The Australian fans would have had reason to become increasingly vociferous, and Tomic might have been able to feed off those emotions and make matters tense for the Spanish gladiator. Despite being down two breaks, Nadal was not willing to concede anything.
Tomic played one loose game at 4-0, and that was awfully costly. He opened that game with a careless forehand drop shot into the net, followed by a double fault long. An unforced error off the backhand made it 0-40. Tomic saved two break points, but Nadal got him on the third, seizing control of that point to provoke a mistake from an uncomfortable opponent. Nadal was back to 1-4, but was soon a point away from trailing 1-5. Yet he saved the break point with an ace down the T, served another ace at deuce, and held on for 2-4.
Tomic maintained his composure and his high quality ball striking. He moved to 4-2, 40-15 but Nadal maneuvered him into a two-handed backhand error. At 40-30, Tomic allowed Nadal too much room for a backhand pass crosscourt, and the Spaniard came up with the clean winner. Tomic double faulted at break point down, and Nadal was back on serve. At 3-4, 40-30, he won a spectacular 31 stroke rally with a forehand winner down the line off a short ball. It was 4-4. Tomic connected with four consecutive first serves—including three aces—to advance to 5-4, but Nadal had his bearings again. Nadal held at 30 for 5-5. With Tomic serving in the eleventh game, Nadal wasted a 0-40 opportunity and Tomic got back to deuce, but Nadal willed himself to another break for 6-5, and then held at 15 for the set, connecting with four out of five first serves.
Nadal had a commanding two sets to love lead, but Tomic fought on obstinately. Nadal broke in the opening game of the third set but had to save two break points in the following game. At 2-1, the Spaniard wiped away two more break points. Nonetheless, Tomic did not surrender. He held for 2-3 before Nadal served his best game of the match for 4-2, holding at love without missing a first serve. Tomic answered with his eleventh ace as he held for 3-4, but Nadal took the last two games from there to complete a 6-2, 7-5, 6-3 victory. He would be the first to concede that the match was much tougher than the score.
Tomic handled his big assignment remarkably well. Here he was, the youngest male player to reach the third round at a major since 1992, the youngest player in the men’s field at this Australian Open, competing against the best player in the world. Tomic was not found wanting. He has so much going for him with his game. His can roll the forehand with a safe margin for error during rallies but he is most effective when he flattens out that shot, which he can do skillfully and frequently. His backswing is relatively short so he can take control off that side almost effortlessly and back his opponents up, which he did exceedingly well against Nadal. Tomic’s two-handed backhand is smooth, versatile, and impressive. His two-handed topspin backhand drive is solid, and his one-handed slice off that side is excellent. Moreover, he keeps his shots unfailingly deep off the ground. His serve could stand considerable improvement and at the moment he “arms” it too much.
But the fact remains that Tomic is nearly 6’5”, and he can still serve a lot of aces. He will undoubtedly learn to get more body weight on that delivery. He is able to swing it wide in the deuce court and can go out wide in the Ad court for aces as well. He can find all of the corners as well. His serve will become a substantially larger weapon in the years ahead as he puts on weight and his body fills out. Tomic will need to learn more about the transition game, and find ways to come forward more. But the view here is that he will finish 2011 among the top 75 in the world, crack the top 50 in 2012, and be pushing toward the top 20 in 2013. As a wildcard in this tournament, he ushered out veterans Jeremy Chardy of France and the left-handed Feliciano Lopez of Spain, the No. 31 seed. Tomic did not lose a set in either of those contests.
Tomic surely has some growing up to do. He is a bit too cocky in interviews, but his self confidence is an admirable trait, and he clearly expects big things from himself. His feel for the game is highly unusual. His propensity for changing pace and altering the pattern of rallies is astonishing at times. We should all follow his progress very carefully in the next couple of years, because Bernard Tomic is going to put Australia back on the map of men’s tennis. I have a strong hunch that he will be seriously contending for major titles when he reaches his early twenties, and if that happens the fans from “Down Under” will be rising from their seats to cheer him on unabashedly every step of the way.
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