The Sorcerer's Apprentice
Bernard Tomic has played so well and been such a sensational story at his native Australian Open that it's easy to forget that he still hasn't matched the win streak he posted at Wimbledon.
Actually, if he does, that means he'll have won the first Grand Slam of the year, the reason being that he won seven matches on the grass in London, starting from qualifying. And he ripped a few hefty names from the draws—Davydenko, Soderling, Malisse—before Novak Djokovic halted his breakout in the quarterfinal.
Yet even there, Tomic managed to get a set. Which is one more set than clay-court deity Rafael Nadal managed to wrest from Djokovic on the red clay in back-to-back Masters Series finals in Madrid and Rome. So, entertaining the notion that 19-year-old Tomic might stun No. 3 seed and all-time Grand Slam champion Roger Federer late tonight in Melbourne is not as impertinent—or loopy—as it may seem.
The match will pit the sorcerer against the sorcerer's apprentice. Both men have marvelous skills, so much so that they stand out on a tour in which the bread-and-butter cocktail is a simple marriage of power and technical discipline. Tomic loves to experiment with angles, take pace off the ball, and use his opponents' pace against them.
In other words, he's the kind of guy Federer can chew up and spit out on a daily basis.
There's a reason Fabrice Santoro, the original "magician," had the last of his two wins over Federer when the Swiss was just 19, and then stood helpless as Federer reeled off eight straight wins over the ensuing years. And there's a reason Federer said, after his lone previous meeting with Tomic (see below): "It's not like we've never seen a sliced backhand before and stuff. . ."
That, I think, will be Tomic's biggest problem tonigh—that cat-and-mouse tennis troubles Federer not at all. The idea that you can bring Federer to his knees with finesse and chicanery is flat-out absurd. Federer can play that way with the best of them. He has all that stuff in his medicine bag, and if he relied on it exclusively he'd still be one heck of a player. But Federer has so much more, and he's exploited it. Gone beyond being just a high-skill guy. Playing a finesse game and trading the occasional magic trick with Tomic may remind The Mighty Fed of the pleasant days of his youth, though. This is what it was like when I was a kid, and realized I could cast spells and make things levitate. . .
However. . .
Tomic can also strike fast and hard with sudden and, preferably, surprising counter-punches. At 6-foot-5, he has the skill to re-direct shots, and he can also play a sufficiently physical game. He can push and pull opponents, working them as if they were taffy. That could potentially spell trouble for Federer over the course of five sets, or at least more trouble than he'd have running down a few drop shots or answering a sharply-angled, soft backhand with an even more sharply-angled, soft backhand of his own.
Tomic freely admits that Federer has been his idol. He said after his last match: "I'm happy to play him (Federer) again. I had the experience in Davis Cup, which is good for me. . .I know sort of a way to sort of play him in a way, but Roger can play unbelievable. He's my favorite player, so it's always good to play him."
Federer and Tomic met for the first and only time thus far in Sydney in the Davis Cup playoff round last September (on grass). Federer dropped a set to Tomic in the fourth rubber but won it, 6-2, 7-5, 3-6, 6-3. However, the conditions that day were terrible (blustery) and Federer was playing his third match inside of three days.
The sorcerer's apprentice is not meant to beat the sorcerer at his own game, not when all other things are equal. But that's rarely the case in tennis, and Federer's age (30), fitness (he had to quit in his last tournament with that classic old-guy problem, a bad back), and mental and emotional stamina (or lack thereof) are all factors that could work in Tomic's favor. If he can move the ball—and Federer—around for long periods, force the match to be as much about physical fitness as finesse, and resist the temptation to get too flashy or cute, he's got a pretty good chance.
Federer, more than anyone, knows what it's like to have the magic touch. I expect him to play it cool, secure in the knowledge that, given adequate opportunity—or a little goading—a young sorcerer can make things disappear, even himself.