Sculpting a Strange Masterpiece

Tuesday, December 11, 2012 /by

I know what you’re thinking: “This match happened in 2012?” I’m guessing a lot of you forgot all about it, or thought that it happened around 2010 or so. I did, too, until I searched this season's Aussie Open draw for any lost classics I might have missed. But I certainly remember enjoying it at the time. Bernard Tomic’s 4-6, 7-6 (0), 7-6 (6), 2-6, 6-3 third-round win over Alexandr Dolgopolov at night in Melbourne might have been the most watchable match of 2012.
 
At the moment, there’s also a bittersweet quality to it. Here we get a glimpse of Tomic from just 11 months ago, hanging in rallies, running miles on defense, pounding his heart after big points, and coming up with his best, most committed shots when it mattered most. That day, with his two clutch tiebreaker wins and his fifth set turnaround, most observers thought Tomic was a guy who, above all, knew how to win tennis matches. In my Racquet Reaction to the match, I called him “the tougher, craftier competitor.” Now, after a year of hooning, wrestling, racquet decimation, 85 percent effort, and generally perplexing behavior, he has a new nickname—Tomic the Tank Engine—and has been suspended from Australia’s Davis Cup team.
 
Something similar, though not as drastic, could be said for Dolgopolov, another young talent who has yet to live up to his potential on a consistent basis. He might be even more frustrating, for the way he can give away matches that should be his, than Tomic. So it’s nice to have these 25 minutes—there were a lot of highlights to this one—to look back on and enjoy. This is Bernie and the Dog at their best, carving out my ninth most memorable match of 2012.
 
*****
 
—If you weren’t ready for the Aussie Open already, this clip might get you there. The first thing I noticed watching it is the sound. The clarity of each shot and sneaker squeak is a Melbourne Park trademark; whoever mikes Rod Laver Arena is a master. It might even help explain the tournament’s appeal to wee-hour watchers in the Western hemisphere—those crisp sounds keep us from nodding off.
 
—This is how I described the match at the time, from Oz:
 
“Tennis aficionados had been waiting for this battle of the ball carvers, and for once a highly anticipated match went beyond its billing. Bernard Tomic and Alexandr Dolgopolov carved the ball every which way, and often the same way, for dozens of shots at a time. Much of the match saw the two of them in a position you don’t see too many players in these days: Hunched over, in the middle of the court, just inside the baseline, sending wide-arcing, side-spinning, one-handed backhands back and forth to each other.
 
The fun began when one of them decided to break loose from that pattern. Then they were sent careening all over the court, into the doubles alleys and beyond to make full-stretch gets; up to the net for drop shots and right back to the baseline to track down lobs. As Tomic said afterward, it was like looking into a mirror. It’s hard to imagine there have been many matches that have put together as much collective touch and feel on a tennis court at one time as this one. With each rally, each shot, cat became mouse, mouse became cat.”
 
—Each player won 174 points that evening. The crucial moment for Tomic was his gutty, big-serving comeback from 3-5 down in the third-set tiebreaker to win 8-6—coming into the match, he was 19-7 in breakers, while Dolgo was 23-23. At the time, many of us thought that Dolgopolov would go away after that, but this was not a match where momentum was sustained for long. Instead, he flew through the fourth set. 
 
Watching now, I realize how much I love Dolgopolov's forehand drive, when he makes a little jerking leap into the ball, and makes it leap off his racquet with more pace than you think is possible. Grace and explosiveness: Dolgopolov has them both. He may even have too much. This man with all the shots often chooses the wrong one. In this match, he moved Tomic forward with drop shots effectively, only to blow the point with a weak lob on the next ball.
 
—The one off-note is Tomic’s half-challenge of a non-call early in the fifth set. Someone in the crowd called a Dolgopolov shot long. When there was no call from the line judge, Tomic lifted his racquet hand to challenge. Before he could say anything, though, Dolgopolov, thrown off by his opponent’s motion and the call from the stands, missed his next shot. When Dolgopolov complained, Tomic gave a “Who me?” look to chair umpire Carlos Ramos and claimed, “I didn’t say anything,” which was technically true. In a perfect sporting world, Tomic should have offered to play the point over. But a fifth set on Rod Laver Arena is not a perfect sporting world. Bernie, as the Aussie commentator says here, really did use every trick in the book in this one.
 
—Dolgopolov, after a choice word for Ramos, was motivated by the moment; over the next few games, he let out his first “Come on!”s of the match. But Tomic was up to the challenge. He forced himself out of his passive comfort zone and began, after more than three and a half hours on court, to hit harder and with more conviction than he had all night. He was, on this evening, the tougher competitor. 
 
Two nights later, Tomic was beaten badly by Roger Federer on the same court. His win over Dolgopolov would be his last over a higher-ranked player all season.
 
—Still, as I wrote that night:
 
All tennis aficionados should savor this one for a second. Our ball carvers turned into sculptors tonight, and they sculpted a strange, inimitable masterpiece together.
 

Steve Tignor's Top 10 Matches of 2012:

No. 1: The Miracle on Grass: Lukas Rosol d. Rafael Nadal
No. 2: The Struggle Down Under: Novak Djokovic d. Rafael Nadal
No. 3: Olympian Efforts: Roger Federer d. Juan Martin del Potro
No. 4: Wooing Them: Victoria Azarenka d. Sam Stosur
No. 5: Tightrope Walk Across Paris: Novak Djokovic d. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
No. 6: Winning Like It's 1999: Serena Williams d. Victoria Azarenka
No. 7: Fireworks: Rafael Nadal d. Roger Federer
No. 8: Sturm and Drang: Angelique Kerber d. Sabine Lisicki
No. 9: Sculpting a Strange Masterpiece: Bernard Tomic d. Alexandr Dolgopolov

No. 10: Stunner in Paris: Virginie Razzano d. Serena Williams

 

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