Making Mulch

Hopman Cup

Tomic d. Haas, 7/6 3/6 7/5

Bernard Tomic tonight defeated Tommy Haas at the Hopman Cup in Perth, in what will likely be adjudged the finest match of the new season, assuming there’s a second and more thorough Mayan apocalypse scheduled for Monday night, the first having been called off due to bad weather. Will Russell/Getty Images AsiaPacIn the awkward event that the planet is still here on Tuesday morning, then it is entirely possible that this match will be surpassed within the week, if not entirely forgotten. It was, after all, just an exhibition. Still, it was fun while it lasted, and somewhat indicative despite its unendorsed status.

It provided some evidence that Tomic’s constant declarations of new-found maturity and commitment have finally become anchored in reality. For too long these declarations were just hot air, anchored to nothing, although this didn’t discourage a certain species of journalist from latching onto them, and confusing them for deeds, in much the same way a chat show audience can be relied upon to cheer rapturously for any miscreant pledging self-reform. As far back as Wimbledon Tomic announced that he’d turned over a new leaf, which was widely reported here in Australia, and duly applauded for its courage and honesty. Professional football coaches showed it to their players to inspire them. I only wish I was making this up.

Tomic then spent the remainder of the season demonstrating that turning over leaves is a good way to make green mulch. At times he seemed eager to discover just how long he could go on essaying the same empty promises before his compatriots stopped believing him, or in any case gave up on reporting it as news. Just how deep was the well of public sympathy? Any hopes that it had already run dry were quashed today when an article appeared in The Age proclaiming ‘Tomic learns lessons’. It began familiarly: ‘After learning some brutal lessons both on and off court in 2012, Australian Bernard Tomic is confident he now has the maturity, hunger and fitness to propel himself into the top 10 by the end of next year.’ Ho hum.

Tomic was interviewed twice after tonight’s match, first by the inimitable Craig Willis on court, then by the ineradicable Mark ‘Howie’ Howard in the studio. In both interviews Tomic demonstrated that whatever else he worked on in his extended off-season, there has been a keen focus on media-training. He remained almost autistically on-message, regardless of the question put to him. The message was ‘maturity’, and that he now has a surplus of it. When he did stray from the message, he didn’t end up anywhere particularly insightful: “My serve was very important tonight. I wouldn’t have gotten through the match without it.”

Nevertheless, for the first time in a long time, Tomic’s tennis backed him up. He displayed laudable determination tonight to twice recover from quite hopeless positions. Haas led by six points to one in the first set tiebreak, and by five games to three in the third set. Stouter hearts than Tomic’s have quailed in such situations. But Tomic stayed with it, and was amply rewarded for his effort. It was as though he had been provided with a tailored feedback system within which to test his constantly-iterated recommitment to fight, as though Haas’ job was to teach Tomic that if he just hangs in there, anything can happen. Then again, one shouldn’t forget that it is January (more or less) and that Tomic traditionally performs well at this time of the season. It’s the other eleven months he struggles in. This match will not trouble the official record, but it’s still the first time in almost a year that he has defeated a player ranked higher than him.

Lest anyone misread my tone, I should concede that Haas was not a willing participant in this, and didn’t look at all pleased to have lost. He was the more enterprising player for most of the match, especially from midway through he first set, and ultimately won more points than Tomic. Tomic had commenced with commendable aggression – his first game was a flurry of service winners and a backhand up the line – but had found this difficult to sustain past the half-hour. Darren Cahill – it’s a rare treat to have him on Australian television – registered the moment when Tomic’s erstwhile endeavour faltered, and when Haas began to deviate from his initial tactic of playing up and down the court.

Haas thereafter took charge, and maintained it until he gained five set points in the tiebreak. So far he’d dropped three points on serve. Regrettably he surged ahead so sharply that he left his first serve foundering in the dust along with his opponent. It became a question of whether it or Tomic would catch up first. Tomic won the race, and then the set. Fred Stolle suggested this ran counter to the zeitgeist – “You don’t find that many tiebreak sets these days get lost from 6-1 up” – though I don’t recall that it was ever common practice. Haas later served for the match at 5/4 in the third set, was broken, then broken again to lose it, concluding with a sixth and final double fault.

Really, it was a question of nerves, and the extent to which these crippled a veteran like Haas provides a useful correction for those who’d otherwise write off the Hopman Cup as a ‘mere’ exhibition. This match was conducted in good spirits, and there were some light-hearted moments – as when Haas high-fived Tomic after the Australian executed an audacious bounce-smash winner from the baseline while falling over – but the players here mostly treat their singles matches no less seriously than they would if the event enjoyed official tour endorsement.

Each man’s face at the handshake certainly bore this out. Haas looked disgusted, and his mood must have only soured when Andrea Petkovic tearfully retired from her subsequent singles match. Quite aside from sympathy for his poor cursed teammate, Haas must feel some frustration that her withdrawal means he may leave Perth with only one match to show for his troubles, and a loss at that. Whatever its other advantages, the most attractive aspect of the Hopman Cup has always been the guarantee of multiple opportunities to take the court.

Tomic was clearly delighted, but in a restrained, even mature way. He’ll have his multiple opportunities to take the court. The next of these will come on Wednesday, against Novak Djokovic, apocalypse permitting. In the meantime, I look forward to perusing tomorrow’s newspapers, which will no doubt be replete with banners proclaiming that Bernard Tomic has finally turned a corner, a new leaf, found his way, and come of age.

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