Keeping Tabs: Jan. 15
MELBOURNE—It was the groin injury heard round the country, a dramatic act of surrender on prime-time television.
“Tomic last night spectacularly quit his Australian Open clash with Rafael Nadal with a leg injury. Spectators in the 15,000 crowd jeered the 21-year-old as he walked off the court after losing the first set.”
“The optics,” as they say, weren’t good: Underachieving young star walks off after a competitive first set with the world's No. 1 player. But the injury, as far as anyone can tell, was real, and Tomic had felt it in previous days—probably his best, fairest move would have been to withdraw and give someone else a chance to face Rafa.
But Bernie being Bernie, he didn’t do himself any favors with his comments to the press afterward:
“I feel sorry because the crowd came and it was difficult for me,” Tomic said, attempting to sound apologetic but somehow turning himself into the victim. “I did what’s best for me. The crowd have to understand that. It was sad. It’s unfortunate. You know, this opportunity I had to play against Rafa was huge for me...It was very difficult for me to say sorry to the crowd.”
Tomic stopped because he didn’t want to risk making the injury worse. That’s understandable, but from the perspective of Australian tennis, he picked a very bad day to do it. The comparisons with his countryman, Lleyton Hewitt, who earlier in the day had played for four hours and five sets in 107-degree heat before losing, were obvious.
The Age summed those comparisons up with side-by-side headlines on its back page:
“I DID WHAT’S BEST FOR ME”
Tomic explains why he had to call it quits
HEWITT, BRAVE BUT BEATEN
The only trouble with this narrative is that while Hewitt was indeed brave in his comeback from two sets down to Andreas Seppi, he also handed the match back to his opponent in the end. It was similar to the way Hewitt lost at the U.S. Open last year; against Mikhail Youzhny, he fought through five sets and worked his way to a 5-3 lead in the fifth, before losing four straight games and the match. Of course, being prone to nerves just makes Hewitt human; the only reason it's notable with him is that he does such a good job hiding those nerves. Still, Rusty is, and likely always will be, better value for your spectator's dollar than Tomic.
More troubling for Bernie yesterday were the victories of two other, younger Aussies, Nick Kyrgios, 18, and Thanasi Kokkinakis, 17. Both thrilled the local crowds by pulling out four-set matches in the extreme heat over solidly established tour players. And both won while overcoming physical troubles of their own: Kyrgios had a bad shoulder, and Kokkinakis reeled through much of the last set with cramps, yet still won it with relative ease.
Afterward, both celebrated the way teenagers will: As if they had won Wimbledon, the U.S. Open, and the Davis Cup at the same time. Kyrgios tossed his racquet aside dramatically, raised his arms Moses-like, and pointed to the heavens—his opponent, Benjamin Becker, didn’t appear to love the gesture, but the crowd did. Kokkinakis may have gone his old buddy and junior rival one better. After match point, he also dropped his racquet, pointed at the crowd, and then ran laps around the court, slapping every hand in sight.
Later that day, Australian doubles legend Todd Woodbridge mused that it could have been a “changing of the guard” day for Aussie tennis, and that for the first time the 21-year-old Tomic would have to deal with not being the country’s sole golden boy. (Maybe the better term is "changing of the changing of the guard.") By all accounts, Kyrgios and Kokkinakis have strong work ethics, and they don’t have Tomic’s mercurial nature. Woodbridge spoke for much of the Australian tennis world when he wondered how Tomic would react. The best scenario, of course, is that the competition finally motivates him for good.
Kyrgios plays Benoit Paire next; that could be a competitive match. Kokkinakis gets Nadal; that almost surely won’t be. But whatever happens to them here, the two teens have already shown one thing that you’re never sure is true with Tomic: They love being out there.