Australia has been searching for a successor to Lleyton Hewitt for some time now and in Bernard Tomic, they may just have found it. Self-taught and hugely talented, the teenager has already cracked the world’s Top 30 and has set his sights on getting to the very top.
Twelve months ago, a tall, gangly 18 year old arrived at Wimbledon with a bundle of talent, a burgeoning reputation at home but a ranking of 158, still unproven on the biggest stage. Seven matches later and Australia was hailing a new hero.
Having come through the notoriously difficult qualifying competition, which is played at a different venue to The Championships, an undaunted Tomic set about ripping up the form book with wins overNikolay Davydenko, Igor Andreev, Robin Soderling and Xavier Malisse. As the youngest quarter-finalist at Wimbledon since Boris Becker in 1986, Tomic then took a set off Novak Djokovic and pushed the eventual champion hard in the fourth set before finally running out of steam.
“Though still a teenager, he relishes the big occasion”
“He uses the pace fantastically,” Djokovic said at the time. “You can see he feels really comfortable on the court. Obviously what he lacks a little bit more is that experience. But it comes with the time. I’m sure if he continues this way, he’s going to be a top player very soon.”
The World No. 1 is clearly a good judge of a player because 12 months on, Tomic will go into Wimbledon as an established player inside the world’s Top 30. A run to the last 16 at the Australian Open was more evidence that though still a teenager, he relishes the big occasion. He is already a big-time player.
When Pat Rafter retired in 2002, Australia was fortunate enough to have a ready-made replacement in Lleyton Hewitt, who was already World No. 1 at the time. With Hewitt nearing the end of his career, the search has been on for his successor and the interest in Tomic has been understandably intense.
For a 19 year old, Tomic does a good job of handling everything that gets thrown at him. Popular with the other players on the ATP World Tour, he recently put his orange sports car up for sale, another sign of his growing maturity. Having dominated the sport in the 1950s and 1960s, Australia are pinning their hopes on him, a pressure that would be difficult for anyone to cope with.
“It was a bit (tough) last year,” Tomic said, as he relaxed at the Monte Carlo Country Club, now his local tennis club after a recent move to make the principality his base. “I had a little bit of pressure the last year but not so much now. I’ve learnt to relax and just play tennis. I think when you play pressure tennis, and you think too much, you don’t play good. For me, when I relax I play my best tennis.”
His best tennis is pretty impressive. Just ask Roger Federer, who ended his run in Australia this year with a clinical performance but who saw enough to know that he is likely to be around a lot more in the years to come.
“They struggle against my game because I take a bit of the normal out of tennis”
“He’s very good,” Federer said. “Obviously now it’s about keeping it up time and time again, also when he is playing on the smaller courts. But so far he’s handled expectations really well and he’s improved a lot since last year. There’s much more that’s going to come the Australian way, I would say.”
In an era when Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Federer and Andy Murray have pushed the standards of baseline tennis to a new high, the arrival of Tomic has been a breath of fresh air. His technique probably wouldn’t make it into your average coaching manual but that is what sets him apart. He can hit every shot and then some you would not even think of, while he is almost single-handedly bringing the sliced forehand back into fashion. His hand-eye coordination is incredible and he loves nothing more than to change the pace, which unsettles even the best of opponents.
Born in Stuttgart and raised in Australia from the age of three-and-a-half, most of his guidance has been done by his father, John. But the most remarkable thing of all is that his style of play is innate. “When you’re young I think it’s all about how you develop, how you play the game,” he said. “You’ve got to have your own sense. No one taught me how to play. I kind of taught myself and became good at it.
“I am lucky, I have a quick sense and understand the court and understand tennis. I know how to pick up these weaknesses. If you look at the guys, 80 to 90 per cent of the Tour is exactly the same. That’s why they struggle against my game because I take a bit of the normal out of tennis.
“Every day I am learning to play new shots, new positions on court and how to hit. When I started at 7 or 8, until 15, I learnt a lot. But from 15 to now, in three, four years, I have learnt so much and imagine how I will be in another two years. I’m ready for this challenge. It’s going to be interesting. I have a good career ahead of me, if I stay healthy. You can’t play if you’re not healthy – we may as well go to the beach.”
The good thing about Tomic is that he knows he is far from the finished article and is willing to work at it. At 6ft 4in (1.93m) he believes he has stopped growing and for his height he moves well. But if he is going to make that next step up towards the very top, he appreciates he has to work as hard, if not harder than the rest.
“If you look at the top three, four in the world, their bodies are among the best,” he said. “They can endure the most out of the year and they are competing in every tournament they play, making the semis or more. To become that good a player you need to be the right athlete. I have to be disciplined. Talent is one thing but work beats talent.”
“ Talent is one thing but work beats talent”
There is no doubt that Tomic has the game to excel on all surfaces, particularly as he matures and grows in strength and experience. It is on grass, though, where he really excels. His serve is good enough to win plenty of free points and none of the big names want to see him in their section of the draw. With the Olympics also to be played at Wimbledon this year, three weeks after The Championships, Tomic has two opportunities to really make a name for himself. It is a challenge he is looking forward to and one that you get the feeling he really believes he can accomplish.
“It’s my all-time, all career favourite, Wimbledon,” he said. “A lot of players don’t like playing me and the grass surface is perfect for that. I love the ball low, so it’s not a problem for me. Maybe I can do even better than last year.
“And the Olympics, it’s anyone’s dream to play the Olympics. It’s a huge tournament. Every player is there, Roger and Rafa, all of us. I have those two big tournaments to look forward to, Wimbledon and the Olympics and I’m ready for this year for Wimbledon to step up and have a good one, a better one.”