What was billed as the young Aussie pretender against the greatest player of all time didn’t disappoint. Even though Roger Federer took total charge in the end to win 6-4, 7-6(5), 6-1, 20-year-old Bernard Tomic played his part in a beautifully constructed duel that had the packed crowd on Rod Laver Arena in raptures.
It was tennis for the purist between two players who know how to use every inch of the court and switch from slice to top-spin forehand and back with bewildering speed and accuracy.
It was typical of Federer that he made a statement straight up. Amazingly, Tomic came into the match not only unbeaten in 2013, but having dropped serve only once in the three events he had played. So the maestro broke him in the opening game. "Right young man," Federer might have said. "Now let’s get on with it."
To his credit, Tomic did just that and kept Federer at bay for long periods of the match, thwarting nine more break-point opportunities that the Swiss carved out for himself until young Bernie couldn’t hold on any more and succumbed in the third after losing the second-set tiebreak 7-5 from 4-1 up.
By then the crowd had been treated to rallies of breathtaking athleticism as Federer made a mockery of those who insist he has slowed up by gliding across the court with such ease and fleetness of foot that it was impossible to believe he could strike winners at the end of the rallies. He finished a couple of them with sweeping cross-court backhands of such elegance that 15,000 people gasped in awe and delight.
Yes, the crowd wanted Tomic to win but Federer inevitably is a huge favorite here and he made them laugh after Jim Courier, talking to him on court for Channel 7, reminded him that he has a huge winning record against hometown players in Grand Slams. "It’s the nasty part of the job, beating up on hometown players," he said, smiling. "I’m just pleased you invite me back."
Regarding Tomic, Federer was very complimentary. "He did a good job tonight and he’s going to be tough to play in the future. He’s a better player than when we played here last year and that age he will improve fast."
Federer, who has not lost before the fourth round here since 2002, will now play the strapping young Canadian Milos Raonic, who earlier beat experienced German Philipp Kohlschreiber 7-6, 6-3, 6-4.
Big-serving Frenchman Jeremy Chardy produced the shock of the day when he ousted the former US Open champion and No. 6 seed Juan Martin del Potro in a big struggle, 6-3, 6-3, 6-7, 3-6, 6-3. Chardy has been regarded as an underachiever until now, a player who can rarely sustain the level of tennis of which he is capable.
And when del Potro fought back to level the match at two sets all, the odds seemed to lean heavily towards the tall Argentine. But this time Chardy didn’t blink.
"I had a tactic before the match and I stuck to it," said Chardy. "Since first point to last I play exactly the same. My tactic was very simple. I play slice with my backhand and I try to play short slice because like this he has to come into the court. After, with my forehand, I go full power."
In the end, del Potro had no answer.
Out on Show Court, Sloane Stephens survived a raucous atmosphere as the crowd chanted support for her opponent, the Melbourne-born Brit Laura Robson, and reached the fourth round of a Grand Slam for the second time with a commendably mature 7-5, 6-3 victory.
Stephens dominated the early stages, winning the first four games before, at 4-1, Robson took a long injury time out while the trainer manipulated her left shoulder which had been giving her pain in practice.
It didn’t seem to hinder her serve, however, and she was fully competitive, breaking back for 5-5 and having chances to break again. But Stephens held steady in an atmosphere she described as "intense."
"I felt like I was playing an Italian player in Italy," said Stephens who had lost to Flavia Pennetta in Rome last year. "That was the most intense match but this was super intense, too. Laura and I always have good matches. I think there wasn’t a point where I didn’t think, ‘Oh, my goodness, this is intense."
Despite those feelings, Stephens is beginning to settle into life on the tour. "I feel a lot more comfortable on court and even going from tournament to tournament, I don’t feel so much anxiety, like, ‘Oh, my God, I have to go there, I have to get on that plane.’ I kind of realize this is how it works, this is what I have to do to be great. It’s worked out so far."