Bernard To(n)mic is just what the doctor ordered for men’s tennis

Move over Miroslav Mecir.  Move over Fabrice Santoro.   Men’s tennis has a new entertainer:  Bernard Tomic.  And early impressions suggest he will also enjoy more success than the thoroughly enjoyable but largely unsuccessful Mecir.

Men’s tennis is already, according to ATP executive chairman Brad Drewett, enjoying its best ever position.  He may well have meant that commercially but the last few years have been phenomenal for the tour with a strong and consistent top 4 and a very competitive top 20 to push them to the limit.  Men’s tennis has got faster, more power packed, more intense and more aggressive in these years.   But there was a danger of a bit of sameness creeping in.  While there is a rich diversity of styles as between just the top 4, leaving aside the likes of Tsonga or Tipsarevic, the tempo of the game has tended to move in one direction.

Along comes young Australian Bernard Tomic to show us another way…and that it is possible even in the current uber-competitive state of men’s tennis.  He deals in slices, drops and some really weird looking shots that I don’t know what to call and plays at a pace not many current players are comfortable with.  A look at clay court matches from the 80s might give you a bit of an idea.  But Tomic mixes it up a lot to camouflage his lack of too many killer shots.

He is able to serve himself out of trouble decently for such a young player.   He also produces a very effective wide forehand from time to time.  But, stripped of his intrigue,  he is essentially a defensive counter puncher….yeah, just like Caroline Wozniacki, just like Lleyton Hewitt.

Oh, but what intrigue!  His encounter with bright American hope Sam Querrey was a study in contrast.  Querrey served big aces with Roddick-like frequency and produced booming forehand winners to back it up.  A typical hardcourt game, that is.  But Tomic’s backhand slice confounded him to the point of distraction and he committed double faults at crucial junctures to eventually hand him the match.  You’d think with a big serve, powerful groundstrokes and decent net game, you should be home and dry against all the top six or so on hardcourts.  Not if your opponent is Tomic.

Today, he had to play, as Jim Courier put it, his mirror image – Ukranian Alexandr Dolgopolov.   Dolgopolov too employs deft touch to great effect to break the rhythm of opponents and has already risen to 13 in the rankings.   He also has a more potent serve and astounding ability to spike the power of his forehand.  He also showed a lot more propensity to attack and charge forward while Tomic, as usual, lacked footwork and preferred to lurk well behind the baseline.

In spite of these weapons, he lost the long rallies more often than not and Tomic prevailed in a five set epic to move to the fourth round.   The many patient and thoughtful rallies that punctuated the match were a world apart from the rush and hustle of modern men’s tennis.  I love men’s tennis the way it is, I don’t yearn for the past.  But variety never harmed any sport and it is interesting to watch these two talents carve a niche for themselves with starkly different methods from what most players today prefer.

Tomic’s Sunday encounter is even more pregnant with context.   He has to play perhaps the one man who knows this kind of tennis inside out.  Really, Swiss ace Roger Federer slices and slides feline like a lot, a lot more than people notice.  He is just much more subtle in his tactics than either Tomic or Dolgopolov and somehow manages great touch with great rhythm at the same time.  Tomic will also find free points hard to come by against Federer’s maddeningly consistent serve.   He may be forced to take the initiative and charge on the offensive and it will be interesting to see how that comes off.

Tomic is already being hailed as the future of men’s tennis, a champion-in-waiting.  Federer is THE champion, the owner of more slams than any other male player in the Open Era.  Will he masterfully put a young upstart in his place and smoothly book a quarterfinal berth?  Or will there be a change of guard and, possibly, drawing curtains on Federer’s hopes of another Slam for good?  Last year, Federer failed to reach the semis of Wimbledon, the turf he was once king of.  A fourth round exit will surely be a real bummer….IF it does happen.

As much as Tomic has shown maturity beyond his years in his tennis craft, ousting Federer may be a bridge too far yet.  But, sorry Federer, I would love to see an upset come Sunday!

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