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.