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Sunday, January 22, 2012
Fed shows no compassion for Tomic

By Greg Garber
ESPN.com

When you are the king, everyone wants a piece of your crown.

A little over a decade ago, a lean and hungry 19-year-old faced Pete Sampras on the emerald isle that is Centre Court at Wimbledon. The American had won four straight titles at the All England Club and, remarkably, seven of the previous eight. And yet, somehow -- in a match that stretched five sets and 3 hours, 41 minutes -- Roger Federer managed to end Sampras' 31-match winning streak in his favorite tournament. Federer reached the quarterfinals, and two years later, on the same court, began the odyssey that would lead to his breaking Sampras' all-time record for Grand Slam singles titles.

In 1983, two years after Federer was born, Sonic Youth released a song called "Kill Yr. Idols." T-shirts with the slogan, sometimes featuring the face of Jesus Christ or Kurt Cobain, followed. Succession is inevitable, in life -- and in sports. Federer has seen Rafael Nadal and now Novak Djokovic usurp his power, take his throne.

On Sunday night in Melbourne, a rabid crowd of 15,000-plus at Rod Laver Arena tried to rally another 19-year-old into the quarterfinals of a major against an iconic player not far from his 30th birthday. Bernard Tomic, like Federer -- his favorite player -- developed a dizzying array of shots at an early age.

Through eight games, it was an even match -- and then Federer broke the thin Australian's serve in the ninth. That took the air out of the building, and the teenager, too. Federer won 6-4, 6-2, 6-2 in a relatively scant 1 hour, 44 minutes.

How one-sided was this one? The Swiss champion hit 13 aces. The prodigy had none. Federer, offering a variety of lobs and drop shots, had 45 winners. Tomic had 13. Federer has now won 23 straight matches going back to last year and reached 31 consecutive Grand Slam quarterfinals. He has won a ruthless 122 consecutive matches against players ranked outside the top 20.

Afterward, Tomic seemed baffled by Federer's shot selection.

"I don't know how he does it in that situation," the teenager said. "I mean, the ball happens so fast, and to think to do a drop-shot in that moment, too good, because I ain't running."

And then he laughed.

Thus, Federer is through to the quarterfinals, where he will face Juan Martin del Potro, a straight-sets winner over Philipp Kohlschreiber. The two met in the 2009 U.S. Open final, where the Argentine had his own breakthrough moment, ending Federer's streak of five straight titles in New York. No. 2 seed Nadal will face No. 7 Tomas Berdych, setting the stage for yet another potential Federer-Nadal semifinal in a major event.

"When you're 19 you have nothing to lose, you feel like," Federer said afterward. "But then you feel an immense pressure, just the constant pounding of knocking on the door from everybody saying, 'When are you going to make the breakthrough?' I think I was one of those guys who kind of had to understand my own game, and then eventually when my fitness and my mind was all sort of coming together, this was when I was able to play my best.

Bernard Tomic
Bernard Tomic seemed in awe of Roger Federer, perhaps too much so during their Aussie clash.

"That 2001 period against Pete was exactly that time. I took a major decision a few months earlier to be quiet on the court, and it worked well for me. So I had a really good year, break points, nothing to lose, just go for it. And then at times you get super frustrated and you can't play your ball into the court just because I was very still up and down mentally, you know.

"I think all the youngsters we're seeing today are much more solid. I'm amazed actually how strong Rafa and Murray and Djokovic and Tomic and all these guys are. Also [Milos] Raonic. It's pretty impressive, I have to say."

Tomic, the teenage precedent, can only look back on his heady accomplishments:

• He was the youngest player to reach the round of 16 here since Nadal made it through to the last 16 at the age of 18 in 2005.

• He was bidding to become the youngest player to reach the quarterfinals of the Australian Open since 17-year-old Goran Ivanisevic.

• He was trying to become the first teenager to defeat Federer since a 19-year-old Andy Murray in 2006 at Cincinnati.

Federer and Tomic met for the first time last year in Sydney, in a Davis Cup match a week after the U.S. Open. Federer won comfortably, in four sets, but it was a good experience for Tomic.

"I looked up to him a lot," he said before the match. "He was like my idol. So to play him and have a feel for him, even on grass, like a match like this is good for me. To me, he's the best player to play. I love watching Roger even on TV now and in the past, so it's good to play him and get the opportunity to play him again.

"He gave me a few tips, which is good now because I play him. It's good to get advice like that from someone like that when he beat me. So thanks, Roger."

Said Federer, "Tomic obviously being young makes him still somewhat of a mystery maybe just because he's changing his game as he's progressing along the way."

The only mystery Sunday as the match progressed was how badly Federer was going to beat Tomic. Although his results have slipped the past few years against the elite, Federer always has managed to prevail against lesser players. Tomic was ranked No. 38; the last time Federer lost to a player ranked lower than that at a Grand Slam was in 2003, when he was defeated in the first round of Roland Garros by No. 88 Luis Horna. His last loss to a player younger than Tomic? Two years later in Paris, when he lost in the semifinals to Nadal.

Afterward, Federer congratulated Tomic on his tournament and told him to keep working hard.

"It's very good experience to play a player like that," Tomic said. "You know, I don't think there will ever be as good of a player as him. I think you can only learn what he does and take in what you learned.

"For me, it's a great pleasure and honor to play him. I think you learn a lot over the period when you play these top guys, top three or four guys. You can just only get better if you lose against him."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.