INDIAN WELLS, Calif.—If there’s one thing we know about Bernard Tomic, and it may be the only thing we know for sure, it’s that he’s a hard man to read. Just when the Aussie looks set to rip a winning forehand, he flutters a ball lazily down the middle instead. Just when he appears ready to make his long-awaited run up the rankings or deep into a Grand Slam, he shows up in a tabloid getting a booze-fueled lap dance at a nightclub instead. Yet just when you're ready to give up, he reminds you again why you loved his mystically odd game in the first place Bernie is just 22, but he’s already been written off and resurrected and written off again at least half a dozen times in his deceptively short career.

So it was hard to know just what Tomic meant when he began to nod at the beginning of his match against his countryman Thanasi Kokkinakis here on Wednesday. Tomic nodded when Kokkinakis hooked a forehand past him in the opening game, and he did it again four games later when Kokkinakis pulled off a brilliant short-angle half-volley winner. Bernie’s nod, it seemed, was a message: “I see what you’ve got, kid, and I’m ready for it today.”

Tomic was right—barely. He survived his second straight encounter with his 18-year-old Davis Cup teammate, 6-4, 4-6, 6-4 (the two had previously played in January in Brisbane). The margin of victory was slim, and the method was shaky. Up 40-0 on his serve in the final game, Tomic began to bunt the ball nervously. Then he began to miss serves. Then he began to make errors, each one wilder than the last. Suddenly Bernie found himself down break point. It looked like all of the uncharacteristically focused and persistent effort that he had put into this match was about to go up in smoke. He wasn't nodding anymore.

But Bernie did something much better: He hit a backhand down the line. It wasn’t cracked with blistering pace, but it landed exactly where Kokkinakis didn't expect it to land. He chased after it, looked like he might track it down for a second, but couldn’t quite get his racquet there. Tomic had hit a frustratingly perfect shot; a few minutes later, his fist was raised in triumph. All of his uncharacteristic effort had been rewarded with a trip to his first Masters quarterfinal.

Bern on Notice

Bern on Notice

Advertising

Tomic is in the midst of another resurrection. He’s up to No. 35 in the world, eight spots shy of his career high. He has a 19-6 record in 2015. He’s coming off a successful Davis Cup weekend in which he recorded two singles wins, including the clincher. And he has been working with Tony Roche, rather than his controversial father, John. The double hip surgery of 2014 is fading in the rearview mirror (though Bernie did complain about a tooth ache today). In this round and his last one, an utterly unexpected straight-set win over David Ferrer, Tomic has been as engaged as he’s ever been in matches that didn’t take place either (a) in Australia, or (b) at Wimbledon.

“I’ve obviously played very consistent through the year,” Tomic said afterward when asked about the differences between this season and last. “I’m believing in myself more...The problem [in the past] was taking it out of Australia playing well in that February month. I managed to do that.”

There’s one more big difference between this season and last: Tomic has competition. Younger competition. Kokkinakis and his fellow teenager Nick Kyrgios have been two of the breakout players of 2015, and they've taken a good deal of attention away from Bernie at home. Tomic has always seemed to me to be a guy who thrives when he’s trying to prove people wrong. His first ATP title, in Sydney in 2013, was a message to Tennis Australia, the federation that his family had feuded with over the years. His fourth-round run at Wimbledon that year was a message to the ATP, which had banned his father from his matches. Now Bernie's 2015, it seems possible, is a message to anyone who thinks that he has been usurped in the Next Great Aussie department. Not that Tomic was going to put it that way, exactly. He emphasized the team feeling that has built up between himself and his fellow Davis Cuppers.

“I think we Australians, we encourage each other,” Tomic said. “I think we’re driving each other now to the expectation. Everyone is sort of pushing each other, and that’s the way it should be, I think, in a nation.”

Tomic needed a push, and he’s right if he hears the footsteps of his younger mates. Kyrgios, with quarterfinal runs at Wimbledon last year and the Aussie Open this year, has shown how far he can climb. This week it was Kokkinakis’ turn, and his ceiling looks just as high at the moment. Awarded a wild card after Juan Martin del Potro pulled out, he easily kept his first serve in the mid-120s today, and he was much more explosive off the ground than Tomic. Most impressive is Kokkinakis’ forehand, which has the loose whip needed to generate pace, as well as the spin to control that pace. The shot, even when he hits it up the middle, has bite, and it naturally bends away from a right-hander’s forehand.

Bern on Notice

Bern on Notice

Better still is Kokkinakis’ attitude. He looks and sounds like a combination of the classic, Hopman-school Aussies of the 1950s and 60s, and the flashy new 21st-century school led by Kyrgios and Tomic. Like those two, Kokkinakis relishes the chance to pound his heart and drop an F-bomb or two when he wins. But like the nation’s humble farm-boy players of old, he doesn’t let himself get too high or too low, and he knows that adversity is there to be shrugged off. In his previous match, a three-set win over Juan Monaco, Kokkinakis was handed a horrendously incorrect not-up call late in the third. Rather than go ballistic like the rest of us, he argued calmly for a minute, and even admitted to the umpire that he was probably going to lose the point anyway. That reaction, more than any shot he hit, won him the match.

“I think that’s one of my big strengths,” Kokkinakis said, “how I deal with things mentally in matches. I’ve shown that I can get through a lot of tough, tight ones, even when I’m not playing my best tennis.”

With Tomic and now Kyrgios, Australia has had plenty of flash on the men’s side in recent years, but not all that much substance to back it up. Both of them love the spotlight, but so far neither has shined as brightly when they’re away from it. Kokkinakis, potentially, has the shots and the drive to do both.

As for Bernie, he was right in his presser tonight: After all of the talk about his extracurricular activities, what he has lacked above all is self-belief. That’s something Kyrgios and Kokkinakis, in their different ways, have to spare. Maybe Bernie was telling the truth when he said he was inspired, rather than threatened, by his younger rivals. He should have seen plenty worth imitating on the other side of the net today. That could be what he was nodding about all along.