Bold Predictions

Brisbane, Quarterfinals

(1) Murray d. Baghdatis, 6/2 6/2

(8) Tomic d. Istomin, 6/3 7/6

About five years ago, in the grip of that special insanity called adolescence, a fourteen-year-old Bernard Tomic predicted with unabashed solemnity that he would claim the calendar Grand Slam and the top ranking by the age of eighteen. Forgive him: he was young, and who among us did not make boasts as deluded in their youth? The difference was that Tomic has been hyped extravagantly in his home country since an early age, in recent times surpassed only by Richard Gasquet. Whereas our foolish comments are made to friends, and thus stop there, Tomic made his to the largest newspaper in Australia. Consequently, they’ve stuck. As with countless unrealised doomsdays, his eighteenth birthday came and went, and keen onlookers were intrigued to discover that he had won no Slams, and that his ranking was somewhere below 200. The earth has completed its orbit once since then, with the miraculous result that Tomic is a year older. He still has no majors – it turns out they’re quite elusive – but his ranking has soared to No.42. (Some will know this as the answer to the question of life, the universe and everything. Others won’t, which is their loss.) He is rising fast.

Being older, and apparently more mature, Tomic has since distanced himself from those earlier predictions. Today during their Brisbane coverage, Channel 7 featured him in one of those lethally inconsequential fluff pieces they air between matches so that the presenters can have their frightening smiles re-affixed.  It showed Tomic toiling hard in the gym, encouragingly focussing on exactly the things he should be focussing on: explosive movement and fast-twitch response. Also encouragingly, he conceded that it is only a matter of time until his peers figure out his strange game, and that he is constantly adding new elements in anticipation of this. He went on to praise the top three. He then revealed that he intends on breaking into the top ten this year, and on winning his first major. Happy, his newfound maturity saw him admit that he might not actually win a major in 2011, and that he is willing to wait until next year. In other words, Tomic’s expectations have grown markedly less crazy, but that doesn’t mean they’re now realistic. Admitting that he was unlikely to surpass Federer’s haul of 16 majors, he graciously confessed that he be happy with ‘only three or four’. This will presumably come as a relief to the rest of the tour.

Today Tomic overcame Uzbekistan’s Denis Istomin in straight sets, which to my knowledge has never been regarded as a key indicator of Slam-worthiness. Now that tennis has returned to Channel 7, the local broadcaster has resumed its practice of placing a tiny Australian flag next to the local players’ names, in the probably justified hope that this will make them more likeable. The other players don’t get a little flag, since all foreign countries are apparently more or less alike. To ram this home, the camera kept focussing on Alexandr Dolgopolov watching from the stands. John Fitzgerald suggested that Dolgopolov was there because ‘they hail from the same part of the world’, notwithstanding that Ukraine and Uzbekistan do not share a border. (The idea that the pair might be friends was not aired. Are foreigners even capable of friendship?)

Anyway, Tomic will face Andy Murray in the semifinals, a man who has forgotten more about being overdue to win a major than even Tomic might ever learn. Murray was frighteningly complete in overcoming Marcos Baghdatis. He hadn’t been this complete when he snuck past Baghdatis back in Tokyo, but he had been in destroying Nadal in the final of that event. Today looked like that. He won the first point with a backhand struck with so much force that Baghdatis didn’t even move to it, despite the ball nearly hitting him in the leg. Wondrously, the Scot’s forehand was even better.

For all that form in the lead-up tournaments means little for most majors – and even less at the Australian Open – it was the kind of performance that will compel the other top players to take note. If they don’t, they are bound to be reminded of it upon arriving in Melbourne, and hourly after that. Cast your mind back to 2009, when Murray cleaned up in Doha, and was immediately installed as the favourite ahead of Djokovic (defending champion), Nadal (world No.1), and Federer (Roger Federer). In any case, preparing for the Australian Open has not been Murray’s problem of late. Ending it has.

Regardless, expect an entertaining match against Tomic tomorrow, in which the Australian will likely discover that some players have figured out his game much quicker than others.

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