Australian Open: Finding the Next Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal

Brett ThompsonContributor IDecember 20, 2010

Nadal man on a mission
Nadal man on a missionPool/Getty Images

The Australian Open looms and the season begins.

Nadal is poised to make history, and a reinvigorated Federer is ready to thwart him. Del Porto is returning, Murray and Djokovic are healthy, Roddick has kicked his kissing disease, and Soderling, Ferrer and Berdych are healthy and motivated. It looks to be a stellar year in men’s tennis.


The Australian Open has often been a tournament where new players first reach international recognition. Yet even with such a developed system as the junior rankings it is rare that the next “superstar” is predictable. One would think that players like Federer and Nadal would have shown brightly but they didn’t. Nadal burst on the scene, and Federer, though known, only had one junior Grand Slam prior to becoming, well, Federer. But for every Junior Grand Slam that Federer won there were a dozen winners that came to naught.


In looking at the confusing and muddled picture of international junior players, and who will next join the ranks of the elite, two teens have risen to top of the tennis public’s awareness; Bernard Tomic, the Australian wunderkind, and Ryan Harrison, a classic American fighter.


Bernard Tomic was a child prodigy, and has long been touted as the next big thing in tennis. He is brash, cocky and thoroughly talented. A Croatian born, Australian tennis player, Tomic is 18 years old and as a junior won just about everything that was worth winning including two Orange Bowls (considered the most prestigious junior tournament) in 2004 and ’06, and two junior Grand Slams, the US Open in 2008, and the Australian Open in ’09. He’s right handed with a two handed back hand and at 6’4” has a big serve, flat forehand, and difficult game to read. His most notable match to date was a five set loss to Cilic at the 2010 Australian Open. "He's very uncomfortable to play, he serves good and hits a lot of flat balls. I think he is going to be a tough player to play (in the future)." Said Cilic after the match.

To date, Bernard is gaining a reputation not only for his game but also his attitude. In March of ’09 he was suspended for walking off court during a match. Then he turned down an offer to hit with fellow Australian Lleyton Hewitt with this statement “…Lleyton's not good enough”, creating a huge rift between them.

In his loss to Cilic, which was a night match, Tomic stated it was "ridiculous" for someone his age (17) to be playing so late. Also in January, The Australian newspaper reported that Bernard's father John has threatened to quit Australia, and have Bernard play for Croatia."

But this could simply be a case of immaturity and a fair amount of coddling that comes with being a prodigious talent. Like child actors, child athletes are an inflated commodity, with huge contracts and many other lucrative possibilities. They have, for better of worse, become a “Brand” that supports a cadre of employees, which can include the parents, and not always with good results. 

That he has the talent is unquestionable, but Tomic and other young players must learn that they can’t expect to win on talent alone- athletes at this highest level are all exceptionally talented.

Andy Murray is a good example with a good conclusion. Supremely talented, coveted by sponsors and a nation that is passionate about tennis, he struggled in his youth with the pressure and expectations. His talent is superlative but then so are those of his peers, Federer, Nadal and Djokovic. As a youth Murray had an issue with fitness and didn’t like to train. But once expected results weren’t easily realized and his peers were surpassing him, Murray buckled down, and has become not only one of the best but fittest players.

Another rising star is a young American player Ryan Harrison. Like Tomic, Harrison is 18, he’s 6’1”, right handed with a two handed backhand. Ryan had a fairly short career as a junior, turning pro at 16, so it is hard to gauge him against Tomic, though in their one meeting Ryan won 7-6 7-5.  Where Tomic is tall and lanky, Ryan is a fairly well developed kid physically and that helped him in his choice to turn pro at a young age.

Ryan has been pretty good about keeping his head down working hard and staying humble. He’s been putting in the time and making smart decision about his game.  In an interview in Tennis-X (September 1, 2010),  Ryan described his relationship with his father in these words: “He's been unbelievable about being on me to stay humble and stay you know, stay I guess just to the point where I can really focus on taking it one at a time and just taking every day as it comes.”

In the current Australian Open qualifying tournament’s Tomic withdrew with an undiagnosed illness, yet was seen practicing afterward. He is now under fire for his “entitlement attitude”- according to the Herald-Sun- as he is expecting a wildcard to the Australian Open. Either way Bernard Tomic deserves the wildcard, he is talented, and is the biggest thing to come out of Australia since Lyetton Hewitt. But Bernard is young and it’s a tough learning process, a bit of ego is as necessary as talent in any sport-as long as there’s someone to pop it now and again.

In contrast Ryan just won the Australian Open qualifier Sunday, beating fellow teen Jack Sock in the final 7-6 (7-3), 6-2, 6-7 (4-7), 6-4. “I think Ryan proved in this tournament that he's a great young talent and that he's probably our best competitor right now...Ryan just has that great competitiveness that you can't teach. He's worked very hard, and he's gotten himself into great condition so I'm just really excited to see him get another shot at a Grand Slam in Australia." Patrick McEnroe said in USA Today.

So could Ryan or Bernard be the next Federer or Nadal? Time will tell on that, but they are here to stay and have quickly marched up the rankings. They have followed very different roads in their young careers, and will be competing in this year’s Australian Open. They’ve played in Majors before even won a match or two, but this year seems more significant, as they are now 18, and historically the 18-19 age period is telling for up and coming players. Though it’s doubtful they’ll be meeting in the final their match’s should be sought out and watched as they are players that will likely have an impact in the near future. At the very least think of them as a standard for the next generation, and watching them will give an insight to what the future holds for men’s tennis.