Aussie bad boy looking good
CONSIDERING that Australia has produced 34 different male Grand Slam singles champions, the treatment being given in the local media here to the current world No 38 might seem over the top. Even before a ball had been struck at the Australian Open, photographs of Bernard Tomic were dominating the front pages of The Age and Herald Sun.
If the interest in 19-year-old Tomic is partly a reflection of the near desperation of this sports-mad country to find a successor to the fast-fading Lleyton Hewitt, it is also a fact that Australians know a good prospect when they see one. Tomic, who is the youngest player in the world's top 100, came back from two sets down to beat Fernando Verdasco in the first round on Monday and maintained his progress last night with a 3-6, 6-3, 7-6, 6-3 victory over Sam Querrey, who was in the world's top 20 until he suffered an elbow injury.
Once again Tomic showed he has the temperament for the big occasion. The big-serving Querrey dominated the first set, but Tomic took immediate control of the second and went on to close out a victory that earns a third-round meeting tomorrow with the Ukrainian Alexandr Dolgopolov.
For much of his career so far the interest in Tomic has focused on off-court shenanigans - many of them involving John Tomic, his controversial father and coach - but now the former world junior No 1 is letting his tennis do the talking.
Tomic is a rare talent. Watching him play tennis reminds you of David Gower playing cricket: he always seems to have time to play his shots, generates power with effortless ease and plays with nonchalant assurance. He has always been tall for his age and stands at 6ft 5in. His once gangling frame is filling out - he now weighs more than 14st - and he has the physique to cope with the demands of the modern power game.
The intense public interest in Tomic is largely down to the fact that there are just three other Australians in the world's top 200: Matthew Ebden (world No 94), Hewitt (No 181) and Greg Jones (No 198). Once Hewitt has finally walked into the sunset - the former Wimbledon champion, making his 16th and possibly last appearance at his home Grand Slam tournament, plays Andy Roddick today - the pressure will be greater than ever.
Tomic has a Croatian father and Bosnian mother. His parents initially left their war-torn homeland for Germany, where Bernard was born, but settled on the Australian Gold Coast when he was three. His father, John, at first drove taxis for a living but coaching Bernard and his younger sister soon became a full-time job.
The only boy ever to win the under-12, under-14 and under-16 trophies at the prestigious Orange Bowl tournament in Miami, Bernard became the youngest male to win a Grand Slam junior tennis title here four years ago. Twelve months later he became the youngest male winner of a match at the Australian Open. Having begun last year ranked No 208 in the world, he made his big breakthrough at Wimbledon, where he became the youngest quarter-finalist at the All England Club since Boris Becker.
One thing Tomic has never been short of is confidence. At 13 he said he hoped to become world No 1 and win all four Grand Slam titles by the age of 18. In a newspaper interview only this week he talked about changing his coaching set-up "after I win three or four Grand Slams". He is targeting a place in the world's top 10 before his 20th birthday in October.
Tomic's teenage years have been filled with controversy, much of it involving his outspoken father. Three years ago Tomic was suspended for a month by the International Tennis Federation after walking off the court during a match in Perth, his father having beckoned him off after berating officials for not foot-faulting his opponent.
Five years ago Tennis Australia refused to fund Tomic's Wimbledon junior campaign after accusing him of not trying hard enough at the French Open. Three years later the teenager lambasted Australian Open officials for their "ridiculous" scheduling after his match against Marin Cilic finished after 2am.
Tomic has had an uneasy relationship with Hewitt, particularly after he declined the former world No 1's invitation to practise with him at Wimbledon three years ago. The Tomic camp later claimed that Bernard had been ill at the time. Tomic Snr also offended Roger Rasheed, Hewitt's former coach, by calling him a "fitness coordinator, not a coach" who had taken Hewitt "from No 2 in the world to No 60".
The greatest concern over Tomic's tennis has been his commitment. Pat Rafter, Tomic's Davis Cup captain, was asked about the teenager's prospects after Australia's home defeat by Switzerland in the Davis Cup. "It all depends on whether he wants to work hard," Rafter said. "If he wants to work hard he'll get the results, but he's got to start having consistent results every time he walks on to the court and putting everything out there. That's been one of the weak parts of his game, that he's not applying himself day in, day out. He can't expect to be a good player and not commit."
Nevertheless, there are signs that the message is getting through. Tomic was even going on the treadmill for 20 minutes after some of his less demanding matches at Kooyong last week and the way that he kept going against Verdasco on a scorching afternoon was encouraging. He even had the imagination to play "possum" in the third set, deliberately lulling the Spaniard into a false sense of security before going for the kill.
As Tomic's stock rises, however, so does the pressure. Andy Murray, who beat him in his first tour semi-final in Brisbane a fortnight ago, said he had been asked about Tomic in every interview since he arrived in Australia. "He's got a lot of talent, but I've been in his situation growing up, with a lot of media attention, media pressure, and if everyone calmed down a little about him, it would help him along," Murray said.
Meanwhile, Australian wildcard Casey Dellacqua was no match for world number three Victoria Azarenka, losing 6-1, 6-0.