A Clear Way Forward

Australian Open, Third Round

Nadal d. Tomic, 6/2 7/5 6/4

Bernard Tomic was not good enough to beat an out-of-sorts Rafael Nadal tonight, but there was no shame in it. It has been years since any teenager could have, the last one perhaps being Nadal himself, in a brasher, sleeveless and altogether drier incarnation. Honourable losses naturally feel worse than wins, but that was never on the cards, even at 4/0 in the second when the odds on Tomic plummeted to $9.00, more proof that gambling is largely a tax on the stupid.

Tomic was a revelation tonight. Like Andy Murray in last year’s quarterfinal, he arrived steeped in the knowledge that his regular game – which I’ve cheerfully derided as ‘pointless noodling’ – wasn’t going to cut it. Consequently, he was aggressive and purposeful, almost never yielding position, and so very calm. There were only a few forehand slices, although that was still a few too many. Those notwithstanding, it seems Tomic’s blithe declaration that Nadal wouldn’t like his game was reasonably astute. Unlike Murray, however, he couldn’t sustain it when the time came to put the Spaniard away in the second set. That was largely down to inexperience. Certainly it had little to do with Nadal, who by his own admission was already looking ahead to the third, and seemed to be locked in a futile battle against his t-shirt, which Nike has apparently fashioned from wet nylon.

Probably the most impressive aspect of Tomic’s performance was his court positioning. The expectation was that Nadal would camp in the middle of the baseline, and that the youngster would be sent scurrying. Few rallies panned out that way. Nadal’s groundstrokes lacked their usual penetration, it’s undeniable, but it was Tomic dictating many of the points, and Nadal was the one on the hop. The world No.1 remarked upon it in his on-court interview afterwards: he simply couldn’t move Tomic from the baseline. Graphics demonstrating the rally-points for each player bore this out.

Amidst the crass media-storm surrounding Tomic’s scheduling at last year’s Australian Open, the reasonable fear was raised that, having sampled the big-time, he might find it a chore to slum it on the Futures and Challenger circuits. In all the fancy theories as to why he has played so little tennis in the last 12 months, this one sounds as likely as any. His straight sets loss to Nadal was in every way a more accomplished and larger effort than his five set tussle with Marin Cilic last year, which was really just a testament to the young Croatian being bamboozled by some lumbering kid pointlessly noodling the ball around. Once again, the test for Tomic will be on the lower tours, proving himself in the weekly grind against a kaleidoscope of players, some with styles as weird as his. Once there, the trick will be to build upon the aggression he displayed tonight, since it demonstrated a clear way forward, a direct route that leads to winning tennis matches. The other task will be to subsume an overweening sense of entitlement, and to treat every moment and opponent with due respect. If Tomic learns one lesson from sharing a space with Nadal, it should be that one.

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