On not unusual occasions, it maybe observed that as a player sends down a serve, immediately as the ball passes the net, there arise cries of "LET! First serve!" And on some of these occasions, the receiver simply swats the ball back, and the ball lands perfectly in the corner of the court far away from the reach of the opponent.
Might there be a reason that the occasional observer feels that this casual, almost careless return would be better than an actual return of serve, this "actual return of serve" being, of course, a creature of imagination of the observer—a mere extrapolation of the returning patterns of the said player in the course of the match?
But then such extrapolation based on imagery may not be without complete basis.
Because, that's the way most of Bernard Tomic's shots seem to be, and they seem to work; because at 18 years of age, he almost made Rafael Nadal run out of T-shirts, as he was made to sweat more profusely than he ever has in a third-round match at a Grand Slam, after coming into his own.
Tomic gives you a feel of casual abandonment as you watch him play.
His backswing is among the shortest on tour. He has no qualms about standing still mid-rally waiting for the ball to come. Sometimes he walks up to the ball to hit it back. It is as if he is shouting out, "Hey guys, this is really too simple—you are breaking too much sweat. See? Just treat each ball at its merit. No need to overdo it."
In today's match you could see the contrast when on the other side of the net was standing Nadal, who believes that it is a crime to stand still on court, or to swing with less than full strength at a ball.
Tomic takes Andy Murray's philosophy to heart. He mixes up spin, and pace, height and depth, throwing the opponent off rhythm. And like Murray, he seems to relish the prospect of constructing a point—as if every successive shot is like a successive argument in a debate he is winning.
But then his game seems to aspire to soar to even more flamboyant heights, with its ability to surprise. A high forehand slice midway through a serious rally catching the opponent by surprise and robbing him of time? An off-pace backhand pulling the opponent into no man's land?
Against Nadal today, he had a chance to put off an easy drop volley, after he had worked his way to the net against a weak return from Nadal. And it definitely did seem like he was about to do it. Nadal was ready to run forward to the rendezvous at the net. At the last moment Tomic pushed the ball further and towards the baseline. It was a forehand slice and not a forehand drop volley. Wait, it was a disguised forehand slice.
There are many former players and analysts who have called Tomic a "junk baller," meaning to say that his success of late is only a result of his kind of tennis being completely new and unexpected and that once players get the hang of it, he will be beaten easily. Many are putting him down as a more adamant version of Murray who is too much in love with his game to see any sense.
But today Tomic showed that he has no qualms about hitting hard if that's what it takes. If Murray is an atheist, Tomic might just be agnostic.
He started the match today experimenting with his "junk," trying to disrupt Nadal's rhythm. But that didn't happen and Nadal found ways to make Tomic play to his forehand with neutral balls, and promptly hit them down the line for winners.
That triggered Tomic into hitting flat and hard all over the court piercing Nadal's famed defensive armour with winners, but also spraying a lot of errors. He had found for himself, the formula for beating Nadal on a hard court—don't give him time. It is easier said than done though, and it is remarkable that he was able to execute the plan with some success.
To paint a rough picture of his ground strokes, he has flat, fast groundstrokes off both wings and can serve hard—he sent down three aces in a row today. He has great hands which he uses like Murray from the baseline, to manipulate the speed and spin of the rally. He has a short back lift and takes the ball very early.
He has exemplary anticipation and is in perfect position to hit the ball more often than not. The short backswing allows him a fraction of a second more to move into position before starting the swing.
Nadal summed it up best when he said, Tomic played too "easy."
At the same time, being very tall at 6'5" with an eastern forehand and without a windshield-wiper finish, it remains to be seen how well he can cope with players who hit balls lower, robbing him of net-clearance and forcing him to hit "up."
In any case, Tomic has made many faces turn with his performance today, and he will be strongly embedded in many an Australian's mind as the future of the country's tennis.
Such players of Tomic's mould who go back to the drawing board of tennis itself, to experiment with the game's fundamentals and sometimes even those of mechanics, never fail to amaze viewers and tennis junkies. At the same time, they have not won a lot of big tournaments either. Bernard Tomic, if Andy Murray doesn't, might just be the first one to do it.
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