Australian Open 2016: Bernard Tomic stakes claim as Australia’s next talisman

For all Bernard Tomic knew as he stepped out to play Uzbeki Denis Istomin, this would be the day he formally succeeded Lleyton Hewitt as the pre-eminent Australian presence on a tennis court. At first, he was an only vaguely apparent heir. But gradually he came into his inheritance, winning 6-7, 6-4, 6-4, 6-4.

Tomic’s unexpected early struggle was only to be expected. Concerning Hewitt, what you saw was what you got, at times bluntly so. Tomic is a riddle, wrapped up in an enigma, inside a mystery. Winston Churchill originally said that of Russia, in whose orbit Uzbekistan spins. We told you it was confounding.

Tomic came into this year’s Open on the back of his best year on the circuit, with his highest ranking, but also with a characteristically colourful annual rap sheet, including a skirmish with police in Miami, a contretemps over unpaid court hire on the Gold Coast and a controversial mid-match retirement last week in Sydney. Between Tomic and Hewitt, this distinction might be made: Hewitt dramas were mostly on-court, Tomic’s mostly off.

There was another perfectly valid and logical tennis reason for Tomic’s slow beginning. This was the first round of a major, one of the game’s four pinnacle events. There are no dills. Istomin is scarcely a star – the best the official guide has to offer about him is that for six years in a row, he has been top 75 – but he he did win a tournament last year in Nottingham and is Uzbekistan’s best ever player. That tournament win in Nottingham made him one of five first-time winner in 2015; that is the depth of men’s tennis.

Between them, there was a little synchronicity. Tomic is coached by his father, albeit remotely now. Istomin, uniquely, is coached by his mother, Klaudiya. If Tomic perhaps has had too much liberty, free a rein, Istomin might have had too little. Sometimes, he and his mother share a room. It meant no girls, he once said, adding that it was just as well, because he had a girlfriend!

It also meant Tomic confronted a fit, well-drilled and initially better player. Tomic’s first set was his usual mystery tour, perhaps inexplicable even to himself. Istomin’s best asset was his serve, which meant he faced no break points, but could not make good three against Tomic. A tie-break win for Istomin seemed only fair.

Figuring as he went, Tomic changed his return-of-serve position, seeking to neutralise Istomin’s serve. It worked. Counter-intuitively, the second set began with three successive and rapid breaks of serve, like an exchange of knights and bishops at chess. It had the same clearing effect.

Thereafter, Tomic’s game even out, and Istomin, essentially a defensive player, could not raise his, and the match took its course. At 23, there is less funk in Tomic’s game, which is not to say that he has eliminated it altogether. But he is improving apace. “I’m moving better than I ever have,” he said later. Mind you, at 23, Hewitt had won two majors and been No 1 in the world for two years. But it was veritably an era ago.

There were three other notable junctures. Serving for the second set, Tomic fell behind 0-40, and saved five break points in all before holding for the win. He, too, could defend. Immediately, a medical emergency in the stands halted proceedings for more than 20 minutes. By the time they resumed, the court of Hewitt was about to sit and Tomic was again in the wings. Istomin raised himself one last time late in the fourth set, but Tomic coolly staved him off. “I started feeling better in the second and third set, and the last set was quality,” he said.

Victory achieved, he let out a small sigh or relief, inaudbile beside the gusts by then emanating from Rod Laver arena.

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