Australian Open 2012: Tomic & Dolgopolov captivate Melbourne

Australian Bernard Tomic reaches the fourth round for the first time with 4-6 7-6 7-6 2-6 6-3 win over Alexandr Dolgopolov

bernard tomic
Photo: NEM, via Flick Bernard Tomic next faces Roger Federer in Melbourne

bernard tomic

The afternoon schedule on the Rod Laver Arena might has boasted the most popular men in tennis—Rafael Nadal followed by Roger Federer—but the stars of the Australian Open’s first Friday were two men hoping, very soon, to carve their own names on the big trophies.

The evening session on the coolest night of the tournament so far was injected with real fire by the talent, energy and creativity of Bernard Tomic and Alexandr Dolgopolov—and that despite both men already carrying two long, hard matches in their legs.

Tomic, carrying Australian hopes along with the man 10 years his senior, Lleyton Hewitt, carries his 6ft 5ins and 19 years with the confidence and bearing of a man well beyond his tender age. Perhaps that is because he is already a veteran of three Australian Opens, having reached the second round in 2009 and 2010 and the third last year.

He also happens to be one of the fastest climbers of 2011—now No38—and the youngest in the top 50.

Dolgopolov, his slight 5ft 11ins looking like of splash of orange sunshine in the cool blue of this glorious arena, seems younger than his 23 years despite last year rising 35 places to 13th in the world. His breakthrough began with his first appearance at the Australian Open last year when he reached the quarter-finals by beating Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Robin Soderling.

This third-round match, then, brought together two of the tour’s biggest rising talents at a venue that meant much to both of them. They brought with them a variety and quality of shot-making to befuddle the best. It is worth noting that they each had Novak Djokovic on the back foot in Slams last year: Tomic took him to four in the Wimbledon quarter-finals and Dolgopolov took him to a 14-16 tie-break in their US Open fourth-round match.

Tomic, the loser in each of their three previous meetings, summed up his task against the Ukrainian: “He’s very unconventional and very weird to play…I consider myself very smart and tactical, which is a good thing!”

And tactics were key to the flow of this match of slice and dice, angle and pace, lob and drop. Every shot in the book was on show, with both willing to deploy the sliced backhand defensively and offensively.

Tomic made the breakthrough first, taking a 4-2 lead in the first set, but Dolgopolov broke straight back from a 15-40 deficit, and did the same again but, serving for the set, looked as though he would falter. He produced his first double fault to go 0-40 down he exploded back with two winning forehands and an ace to hold for the set, 6-4.

Tomic, as so many have before him, seemed dazzled by the movement of the smaller man, who manages to bounce even in his amble of a walk. But the Australian rode out the storm, patiently countering slice with slice, angled forehands with great defence, and waited for the errors to come—as they invariable do from the flamboyant racket of Dolgopolov.

Tomic broke in the fourth game only to be the broken back in the fifth and they out-manoeuvred each other all the way to a tie-break. With Tomic consistently serving the better, he swamped his opponent to love: It was a set apiece.

In the third set, Dolgopolov broke first to take a 3-0 advantage but the Australian stayed patient and outlasted the teasing tennis of his opponent to break back in the fifth. The cat-and-mouse rallies, many lasting more than 20 strokes, edged them to another tie-break and, despite some bold overhead winners taking Dolgopolov to a 5-3 advantage, Tomic’s patience and tactical reading of the game paid off and he took the set.

Now it was time for Tomic to go off the boil and Dolgopolov renewed his energetic attack to make the break, but he paid the price with a pull to his hip. He described the sensation to the trainer as a pain in the lower back that radiated all down his leg. Some lengthy manipulation did the trick, though, and he bounced back to consolidate his first break with another. The quickest set, barely half an hour, was his, 6-2, and Tomic needed to refocus.

The Ukrainian, perhaps goaded on by fears of more injury, went on the offensive, spraying winners—12 in the set from a match tally of 80—but also conceding errors—14 out of 78. It is a dangerous game that Dolgopolov plays, perhaps explaining why he so often ends up in five-set seesawing contests: This was now his third in succession.

Once again, however, he looked like breaking serve in the first game. He earned three break points before a controversial call—or absence of call—on the third broke the Dolgopolov concentration. Tomic raised a hand mid-rally as if to appeal but returned the ball. Dolgopolov stopped but the umpire did not react and the point—and subsequently the game—went to Tomic.

It proved to be a decisive turning point. Tomic broke in the fourth game and pinned his man down with a sequence of cross-court forehands worthy of Juan Martin del Potro. The set and the match were finally his, 6-3.

In the end, they were separated by the smallest of margins, by one man winning the right exchanges at the right time: They scored 174 points apiece. Dolgopolov may have won had his erratic serving edged over 45 per cent; Tomic may have lost if his patience had wavered. But on this occasion and in this place, Tomic showed himself mature beyond his years, and with the talent and the time to grow into a truly formidable player.

All of which makes his next match in Melbourne a mouth-watering prospect, for he will play one of the most gifted of all, Federer. The Swiss made 55 winners and just 13 errors in overcoming the daunting serve of Ivo Karlovic.

Melbourne Park is already sold out for an encounter on Saturday that will pitch the young Australian hope, playing the tennis of his teenage life, against the four-time champion, 11 years his senior, and himself a favourite in Melbourne. With pitch-perfect timing, it will be Federer’s 1,000th match.

Also progressing smoothly was the next potential opponent for Tomic or Federer: del Potro. The Argentine dropped only five games to Yen-Hsun Lu and next plays Philipp Kohlschreiber, the classy but surprise survivor from the Mardy Fish/Juan Monaco corner of the draw. The German is trying to reach his first ever Grand Slam quarter-final.

In the bottom quarter, the progress of Nadal, who has yet to drop a set, was unbroken by Lukas Lacko. He will next meet 18th-seeded compatriot Feliciano Lopez, who beat No16 seed John Isner, 6-3, 6-7, 6-4, 6-7, 6-1, in three and a half hours. Nadal has lost to Lopez only once in their nine matches since 2006.

The winning Spaniard will face either No7 seed, Tomas Berdych, or another compatriot, Nicolas Almagro, in the quarters. The Czech edged out No30 seed Kevin Anderson, 7-6, 7-6, 6-1, and Almagro was a possibly unexpected winner over Stanislas Wawrinka, also in straight sets.

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