On Saturday, Roger Federer will play Bernard Tomic in the third round of the Australian Open. Last year they met a round later and it was no contest. This time Australia will be riveted, hoping against hope that the 20-year-old from Queensland can build on his unbeaten start to the year and prove himself capable of filling the shoes left empty by Patrick Rafter and Lleyton Hewitt, the nation’s most recent Grand Slam winners.
On a hot, dry night at Melbourne Park, 15,000 people watched Federer sweep past an old foe, Nikolay Davydenko 6-3, 6-4, 6-4 with the kind of majestic ease we have come to expect when he knows he has an opponent at his mercy. It was Federer’s 18th victory over the talented Russian in 20 meetings.
Earlier, with the sunshine pushing the on-court temperatures past the 100-degree mark, Tomic, looking as languid and untroubled as ever, had survived a testing struggle against a 25-year-old German, Daniel Brands, to win 6-7(4), 7-5, 7-6(3), 7-6(10) after Brands had saved seven match points toward the end of the fourth set.
Tomic got his year off to a flying start by defeating world No. 1 Novak Djokovic at the Hopman Cup in Perth and then won his first ATP title in Sydney last week. He credits himself with the sudden improvement in form. Last year he had fallen back to a ranking of 52 from a high of 27 in 2011 and he realized distractions were hurting his tennis. He had been in trouble with the police in Queensland for driving fast cars and Rafter, a Davis Cup captain who does not tolerate lack of effort, had thrown him off the team.
So he sat himself down in October and gave himself a talking to. "Yeah, just myself," he said, dismissing any idea that he needed advice from anyone else, despite the huge influence his extrovert father has had on his career. "I said, look, time’s flying. I do have the talent. I can play good. But I’m not using it. So I worked hard, as much as I could. It’s amazing what can happen in two months if you push yourself every day. Before I didn’t really have the urge to improve. Then I got a wake-up call and I turned it around."
Federer, of course, will provide the perfect barometer from which to judge his improvement. He has been through it all himself and explained how he had changed the direction of his own career when he was young.
"I’m much stronger today physically," he said. "Whereas in the past people thought if you go past two hours on clay against Federer, he’ll not get better from that point on, he’ll get weaker. I wanted to have it where people thought the other way; that I was going to get stronger after two hours. The longer the match went on, it’s going to be in my favor. That’s the mindset you have to have in practice and that’s when I went to work and that’s why I am the player I am today."
Rightly, Federer thinks Tomic enjoys the big stage and he is prepared to see some improvement in the young Aussie. If Tomic serves as well as he did against Brands – 26 aces to 23 as both players served up a storm – it could be a lot closer than last year.
Sloane Stephens, now the third-ranked player in the US and enjoying a high of No. 25 on the WTA ranking, reached the third round of this event for the first time with a 6-4, 6-3 victory over Kristina Mladenovic of France.
The bubbly 19-year-old found it hard work out on Court 8 and admitted that she "didn’t play that great."
But Stephens stuck to the task and took the all-important first set when she chased down a couple of balls when Mladenovic had 40-15 at 4-5 and forced the break as her opponent ballooned forehands out of court.
"I was determined to run down every ball and get the next one back no matter what," she said. "I just forced myself to focus and concentrate."
Stephens is surprised that a quarterfinal showing in Brisbane and a semifinal in Hobart has lifted her from No. 40 at the start of the year to No. 25. "Wow, that’s great," she beamed. "I have already decided to reward myself with a pair of Jimmy Choo shoes. I mean, I’m staying at the Hyatt and there’s a Louis Vuitton right next door. What are we supposed to do?"
Go on winning tennis matches is the answer and then she’ll be able to buy as many pairs of shoes as she wants.
The rise of the teenagers continued in dramatic fashion as 18-year-old Laura Robson overcame a nervy start to defeat the former Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova 2-6, 6-3, 11-9 after a three-hour battle that lasted until 12:30 a.m. in Melbourne. Robson was actually born in Melbourne before being taken to the UK by her English parents at the age of six, so she had no trouble winning over the large crowd that stayed on to cheer every winner as she went for big service returns off her powerful left-handed forehand.
Robson will play Stephens in the next round in what will be billed as a battle of the future generation. "I know her well as we trained at the same camp as juniors," said Stephens. "It could become a nice rivalry.