Roger Federer awaits the challenger Bernard Tomic in the third round at the 2013 Australian Open.
There's no beating around the bush when it comes to Bernard Tomic's recent attitude towards his fellow tennis contemporaries at the 2013 Australian Open; bold, brash, and ostensibly confident.
Over the course of the past couple of days, his demeanor towards his highly anticipated third round encounter against World No. 2 Roger Federer on Saturday night in Melbourne has become comparable to something in the realm between Lebron James' talents-to-South-Beach moment and Derek Zoolander's acceptance of an award he didn't actually win.
Why the questionable comparisons?
The answer is simple: the implications posed by Australian Bernard Tomic have been about none other than Switzerland's Roger Federer, the greatest player of all time, and that takes a lot of brass.
Looking back at the past few weeks, we can better assess how we got here.
Big Game, Big Words
Roger Federer is coming into this year's Australian Open without a warm-up tournament as preparation for the year's first slam. The closest thing he's played to a competitive game in the past eight weeks has been a series of exhibition matches in South America. Federer isn't particularly match-tough, but so far, his form this week hasn't shown it. Roger's game appears crisp, with all of its cogs and gears clicking and turning uniformly in perpetual, Swiss-like motion.
Bernard Tomic's run up to the Aussie Open has been anything but underground: He has won seven straight matches (10 if you consider the three non-ATP tour level matches he won at the Hopman Cup) and his first ATP title in Sydney this year. The last month has been by all means the best tennis that Tomic has played in his short career, and he deserves praise for the strong effort he has given at the start of the 2013 season.
But it was after Tomic's win at the Sydney International when things became interesting for observers of the tennis world. When the 2013 Australian Open draw was released last Friday, and it was revealed that Federer and Tomic could meet for the second year in a row in Melbourne (this time in the third round instead of the fourth), it was the 20-year-old Australian who applied pressure to the Swiss. When asked about the prospective meeting, Tomic responded nonchalantly,"Well, if he gets that far."
His approach to the matchup remained unchanged as the days passed, and Bernard's insinuation that it was the 17-time grand slam champion Roger Federer who needed to stretch his limits to reach the third round has now gathered both criticism and, to a certain extent, recognition in some fan circles.
What's interesting about this dynamic becomes much clearer when looking more broadly at Tomic's biggest wins and results, and seeing the key factor: playing in his homeland.
The energetic crowd, the sweltering sun, and even the jumbo cam: None of it impedes Bernard, but instead only serves to energize and nourish him. He doesn't appear shy on court, and he certainly doesn't appear timid in his interviews, where he seems to exude ego by the truckload.
Have Tomic's comments been arrogant or just a fair display of confidence?
Ultimately, the most crucial factor is that Tomic plays much better tennis in Australia than anywhere else in the world. It motivates him and gives him immense confidence, which is presumably responsible for the opinionated press conference remarks about his match against Federer.
But Tomic can't forget the most critical consideration.
The King Is Not Dead
Think back to the 2008 Australian Open.
Novak Djokovic was coming off of his first year as a serious contender on the tour. He had posted several significant wins over top 10 opponents, including three in a row against then World. No 3 Andy Roddick, followed by victory against World No. 2 Rafael Nadal and World No. 1 Roger Federer to win the Rogers Cup Masters in Montreal. On top of his great successes outside of the majors, Djokovic had also reached his first grand slam final at the 2007 U.S. Open, where he was defeated by Federer in straight sets.
By the time the 2008 Australian Open rolled around, it was beyond question to everyone that Djokovic was a sincere favorite to win the title. And that's exactly what happened.
After Djokovic's semifinal win over Roger Federer, Novak's camp was frenzied. In a defining moment for Novak's image among the tennis media and fan base, Djokovic's mother was quoted after the match as saying, "As we said, 'the king is dead, long live the king.'"
Federer would take the comments to heart, coming back with a ruthlessness to defeat Djokovic in the next two slam semis they contested. Their continuing rivalry and ensuing electricity whenever Roger and Novak take to the court against one another is often chalked up to that 2008 Australian Open battle and the subsequent press, with its emphasis on whether or not a torch had been passed.
As if Roger Federer needed more fiery encouragement to attempt to down his toughest foes, now Bernard Tomic is throwing fuel on the blaze. And Tomic is no Djokovic.
What It Means for Saturday's Match
Despite the fact that Bernard, 20, is now the age that Novak was when he won his first grand slam title, their resumes are far from equivocal at the same stage in both of their tennis careers. Bernard Tomic has talent, no doubt, but it is a rough cut: unformed and undeveloped, rudimentary in technique, and totally bereft of anything remotely similar to the Novak Djokovic of 2008. And yet his attitude has progressed much more rapidly; Tomic has the mindset of a man on a mission without a map of how to get there.
Roger Federer has been astounding over the course of the past decade; Bernard Tomic has been playing at a high level for the past two weeks. Federer has been highly gracious and respectful towards the elders of his tennis generation; Tomic has been somewhat defiant and cheeky, even off the court and away from tournament press, as noted by the multiple controversies and complaints surrounding his work ethic and commitment to the sport.
That isn't to say that confidence isn't a good thing. It is a necessary, if not absolutely critical, aspect of any athlete's disposition towards their sport. But extraneous or unessential arrogance is an impediment, a mentality equal to that of a student who is unwilling to learn.
At any rate, you can throw statistics out the window after all the hype that's revolved around this match scheduled for Saturday night at 7:00 p.m. Melbourne time (3:00 a.m. EST). Federer and Tomic know each other's games after having played three previous times (Federer victorious in all of them), and neither of them have evolved dramatically in terms of tactics or strategy since their most recent meeting in Cincinnati last year (Fed over Bernie, 6-2, 6-4).
Tomic will try to be more aggressive, pushing Federer's backhand into uncomfortable positions on the court with a combination of flat and off-pace forehands to the ad-wing, something that Roger himself has mastered over the years. Meanwhile, Federer will rush the young Australian off both wings, taking the action to the net as frequently as possible to keep Tomic from gathering rhythm.
With better speed and footwork, Federer will effectively control and contain any easy-power generated by Bernard.
Too much slicing and dicing from the Australian will leave him in a defensive position well behind the baseline, as Federer can manipulate any floating or mid-court balls into winners. Service will also be decisive for Tomic (both have served well in their first two matches, saving all cumulative break points they have faced), since Federer's return game is far better refined, but still only pivotal enough to make the scoreline closer.
Finesse, sensibility, on-court savvy, you name it: Roger simply has too many options against the 6'4" Bernard, who will have trouble changing directions when Federer pulls the trigger up the line.
Speaking of up the line, Tomic's biggest weapon against Federer will be his backhand down the tee, but for Bernie it is a low percentage shot and therefore, not a reliable asset against the Swiss champion.
A lack of maturity, both on and off the court, will cripple Tomic's intentions to sweep the four-time Australian Open winner off his feet, no matter how whole-heartedly he presumes he can.
When all is said and done, Roger Federer will handle Bernard Tomic again in straight sets, but this year it will be with purpose. For Federer, he'll be eliminating the last standing Aussie, and with him some of the tension and burden of having to play against a young gun and his passionate posse shouting from the stands.
When dealing with a "king" like Federer who cannot yet be struck down so hastily, I'd suggest Tomic take a page out of history and bite his tongue before he's forced to eat his words.