TODAY a nation will be on tenterhooks. Today a nation will hold its breath. Today Bernard Tomic will take on Roger Federer for a place in the fourth round of the Australian Open. Can he do the unthinkable?
Can he flatten Fed?
Australia has spent the past four years watching Tomic and waiting, waiting for the moment he looked likely to step into Lleyton Hewitt’s shoes and make his way to the top of the rankings via a grand slam trophy or two. And Australia is still waiting. Australia had better get used to the idea that it could be waiting for quite some time.
Now, this has nothing to do with Tomic’s talents (many) or ambition (great). Rather, it is a result of the recent trends in men’s tennis: old blokes do better than boys.
There is nothing professional sport likes better than a good stat and as the first round drew to a close at Melbourne Park, the WTA, those guardians of the women’s tour, trumpeted their latest factoid: of the 18 teenagers who began the tournament, 11 had lived to fight another day. That was the best showing by the adolescent ranks since 2009 when 13 teenagers won a match at the US Open. Cue fanfares and hurrahs.
Back in the men’s ranks, there is not a teenager to be seen in the world’s top 250. Taro Daniel, at 19 years and 11 months, has climbed his way up the greasy pole to No.?282 but no further. Tomic, at 20 years and three months, is the youngest man in the top 200 and the youngest man to get into the main draw by right (Luke Saville is younger but he needed a wildcard to claim his ticket to the Open).
Of course, there was a time when a big, young lad could make a name for himself. Back in 1985, Boris Becker bounded over Wimbledon’s centre court like an overgrown puppy and, aged 17 years and seven months, beat Kevin Curren to win the title. Blimey, we thought, that was impressive, but the following year – now aged 18 years and seven months – he came back and beat Ivan Lendl to win his second Wimbledon crown. Four years later, Michael Chang beat that record by beating Stefan Edberg to win the French Open. He was just 17 years and three months old.
Those days, though, are long, long gone.
As Andy Murray waited patiently (and most of Britain waited less than patiently) to win his maiden grand slam title, he was asked daily when and if he could win a major championship. The longer the wait went on, the more the pressure built and the more the doubters wondered if he had missed the boat. What? You are 25 and you still haven’t won a slam? No chance, mate.
But Murray stuck at it – he knew that the men’s game had changed dramatically in the seven years he had been on the tour.
“Beforehand, guys were breaking through when they were like 19, 20, 21 years old,” he said. “When I got into the top 10 for the first time, there was me, Rafa and Novak, three teenagers in the top 10.
“Tomic is probably the youngest one now in the top 40, 50. It’s got so physical now, the game’s changed. Guys are peaking at a different age and having their best results later in their career.
“The average age of the top 100 is 28. I would guess that is a couple of years older than five years ago. The game is changing, it takes guys longer to physically and mentally cope. You come out of the juniors and you are used to hitting clean winners and then you come onto the main tour and the ball is coming back with interest. You have to develop mentally much quicker to understand and appreciate how much the game is changing. It will, for sure, take guys longer to break through unless you get someone who is an incredibly gifted and talented athlete.”
The recent developments in string technology, giving more power to a chap’s elbow, coupled with the homogenisation of the court surfaces – the fast ones have been slowed down and the slow one speeded up – and the weight of the balls means that tennis is now a brutally physical sport.
Roger Federer has a lot to answer for, too. His sublime skills raised the bar in the men’s game and those who wished to challenge him had to come up with a new plan. Until Rafa Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Murray emerged to torment him, no one could match his talent with racquet and ball; all they could do was try to outlast him on court (if you can’t beat him, try to run through him). And when Nadal’s muscular game took a stranglehold on the French Open, everyone started to get fitter and stronger to give themselves a chance against him.
Now everyone can leather the ball but no one can blast an opponent off the court in the way that Becker or Goran Ivanisevic could in days of yore. Now, to win a major trophy, the blokes have to be ready and prepared to sweat and graft in order to survive for five hours and 53 minutes, as Novak Djokovic did here last summer. To do that, a man must be at his physical and mental peak – and teenagers, even fit ones, are years away from that. The average age of the men in the world’s top 10 is now 26.9 years.
“I played Wimbledon as a junior for the first time at 16 and my first tour event at 17,” Murray said. “Rafa played his first senior tournament at 16, Novak was young, too, and now you look at the juniors in the locker room and there is no chance they could compete yet. I practise with some of the young guys like Ben Mitchell.
“I practised with him the year after he had done well in the Wimbledon juniors [in 2010] and you see how much his body has changed in the last couple of years and only now is he starting to be able to compete. Before, guys were able to compete when they were 16 and 17 but now it is at least four more years.”
Back in the women’s game, the kids are thriving. Unable to generate as much power, pound for pound, as the men, the powerful racquets and strings mean that a teenager can happily go toe-to-toe with a 25-year-old and the difference in muscles appears to be minimal.
Alas, the glaring difference between them and the men’s tour is the lack of strength in depth. The gulf between the top women and the also-rans is so vast that if anyone from the lower reaches of the world’s top 100 ran full pelt into the likes of Serena Williams, they would bounce off without leaving a dent. On the men’s tour, even Djokovic, Federer and Murray cannot afford to take anything for granted and are on their guard from the very first round of every tournament.
On the women’s tour, the teenagers will continue to make hay, picking up their pay cheques and making their fortunes. Most of them will never threaten the Serenas or the Sharapovas but they will make a decent living. But back in Australia, the tennis-watching faithful had better be prepared for a long wait. At 20, Bernie is still far from the finished product but his time will come. And keep your fingers crossed for tonight, just in case.
Instant success: Boris Becker (left) after winning Wimbledon in 1985. Ambitious: Bernard Tomic (right) is the youngest player in the men’s top 200.
PICTURES: AP, PAT SCALA
The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Hangzhou Night Net.