Bernard Tomic means to inherit the mantle. It is surely already his. Since he was a kid, the Australian tennis scene has been held together by Lleyton Hewitt. His modus operandi was to fight. His successor has learnt the lesson well.
As baton handing ceremonies go, the opening day of the Australian Open could barely have been scripted better.
The local hope falls behind, the deficit almost out of reach. At the last moment, he wards off impending defeat. He digs and claws and scrapes. He drives his hot-blooded opponent to the brink of madness. Suddenly he's level.
Tomic would've seen this summer staple often enough with Hewitt as the protagonist. As he strode from the chair to commence the fifth set against Spanish number 22 seed Fernando Verdasco, he was staring down glorious victory or honourable defeat.
Either way the reviews would be in his favour.
The Australian was swiftly shown the difference between the amped up level of Centre Court grand slam tennis as opposed to the tuning up of the professionals in the exhibition at Kooyong.
He created openings against the Spaniard. He might've broken late in the opening set bar for two loose ground strokes. Instead, in the next game Verdasco broke him.
In the second set, Tomic earned three set points on his opponent's serve. How he would love the drop shot back he wasted on the first of those. He'd hardly had time to lament when Verdasco raced away with the resulting tie-breaker.
That was instructive. When Tomic was chasing the match he was free and bold. When the moments came to convert it to a lead, he tightened noticeably.
Some gave up on him as a lost cause but that ignored how close this was at the margins.
With nothing to lose at the climax of the third set, Tomic snuck up and broke Verdasco. It was done without crescendo or histrionics. He neatly crept up and whipped past his opponent.
That is Tomic's way. He's a craftsman rather a bludgeoner. He's at the Ed Cowan end of the real openers scale with Dave Warner at the other extreme.
Tomic is languid in his approach at the expense of perceptible urgency. When it works, he's elegant. When he's off, he's mistaken for a slacker.
It lends to the illusion that he conjures his changes out of not much. That is to misdiagnose the understated strength of his game.
In complete contrast, Verdasco was a picture of volatility. He fought with the umpire. He was in a state of constant agitation. And the animated dialogue with his support staff was a permanent source of distraction and angst.
Tomic made the running in the fourth set. He grabbed a lead, gave it back and seized it again with a flourishing forehand. He wouldn't relent. He became proactive in his shot making. You could see how he'd learnt within a single match.
Hewitt had been in this very position in 1998. He came to the Australian Open on the back of his first career victory in Adelaide where he had taken out Andre Agassi in the semi-final. He was booked for an opening-round date on Centre Court.
He fell two sets behind the Czech Daniel Vacek before he rallied thrillingly to put things back on terms. But the task was just beyond the teenager at the time, beaten 6-3 in the decider.
Now the challenge was Tomic's inheritance.
Verdasco settled, harnessing the wiles that the years dispense. Approaching the four hour mark, Tomic didn't wilt. He drew in the energy a home crowd can offer and held the associated tension at bay.
From deep in the court Tomic defended where necessary and smoked Verdasco out in the ninth game. The Australian set it up with fearsome backhand. Verdasco got out once with the swiping forehand, the second helping went wide.
It set up two breaks points. Verdasco launched an ace. Then a double-fault. The break was made - but only until the Hawkeye replay rolled. The ball took a portion of the line. Fuelled by the fortune, the Spaniard powered his way out of trouble and held serve. It was gritty. A man who wanted control of his fate, not to be resigned to it.
Tomic had every right to feel deflated. Verdasco galloped to his chair. Momentum swings on such moments. Not for Tomic though. He held for 5-5. In that reaction, all watching knew the future was assured for Tomic. But tomorrow could wait. Victory today had an ever increasing bounty resting upon it.
Tomic redoubled his efforts and lay siege to the Verdasco serve. It took another two break points but he finally elicited a faulty forehand in a critical moment. The Australian leapt in the air, clenched his fist then blessed himself - a prayer echoed around Rod Laver Arena.
And the gods smiled. Tomic produced his best forehand of the match - a flattened-out ball that went pounding past Verdasco - to set up match points.
He converted the second with a crisp forehand and the country rose to him. The future had arrived.Tags: australian-open, tennis First posted January 16, 2012 21:07:31