- Kamakshi Tandon
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This potential third-round meeting at the Australian Open was circled on drawsheets as soon as the names were filled in last week, particularly among the locals. It offered the mouth-watering prospect of the most respected athlete in Australia (that's Federer, polls show) facing off against Australia's best young tennis hope.
A few months ago, it wouldn't have felt like much of a contest. Tomic lost to Federer in straight sets in the fourth round a year ago and had a troubled second half of the season. He was accused of not making a full effort against Andy Roddick at the U.S. Open, then had a run-in with police in Australia, becoming a regular target of criticism by the tennis establishment there. But after what he describes as some serious self-reflection over the break, the 20-year-old has been on a roll -- 10 victories in a row to start the season, including an unofficial but confidence-boosting win over Novak Djokovic at the Hopman Cup, and capturing his first ATP title in Sydney last week.
Suddenly, a match against Federer became an intriguing prospect.
Even Tomic was immediately excited about the draw. "That third-round meet is huge," he said. "If I get that opportunity get to the third round and play him, it will be an interesting match this time."
Did word of that make its way to Federer? In his pre-tournament news conference, the 17-time Grand Slam champ warned, "He will be making a mistake about thinking about me in the third round, because he also has to get there."
Then, asked whether Tomic could be in the top 10 in a year, Federer sounded his usual cautious note. "I think we should go step by step," he said. "Everybody wants to jump from -- what's his ranking, 60? -- to 10 in a year. It's hard to do. Ten is a big ask. Don't forget how tough the top-10 players are right now."
Tomic was playing the final in Sydney that day and was greeted on his first morning in Melbourne by headlines like "Federer warns it's tough at the top, Bernie," "Federer hoses down Tomic hopes" and "Tomic has 'work cut out.'"
"Well, I saw the papers this morning," Tomic said in his pre-tourney news conference. When asked about playing Federer again, he grinned impishly and said "If he gets that far."
If Federer supplied the kerosene, Tomic had just dropped a match into it. He then fanned the flames by keeping the "if" theme going before Federer's second-round match against Nikolay Davydenko.
"If I do play him, then I've got my serve, which is a weapon, that I can keep holding now against him," Tomic said after booking his third-round spot. "But he's got to beat Davydenko. It's not easy."
"If it is him, then what a match it is, you know? Ten out of 10 now with matches [won this season] -- I feel so confident. This is the perfect time to play him. I think, you know, I've got a good attitude to win. I've beaten a lot of good players over the past two weeks, especially Novak," he said. "I think I can do it, if he wins his match."
After getting to the third round, Federer doused the situation. "I think he's also been lured into it, to be honest," he said when asked about all the needling. "At the end of the day, you got to wait for the match.
"I think it's important to be confident to a degree, you know. It seems he has that. Now obviously we both have to live up to a big match, big hype, and then we can talk about it afterward, you know."
So the time for talking is over, and at 7 p.m. on Saturday in Melbourne, it will be time to play. The match is being dubbed "Weekend at Bernie's," and the rallies should feature the same clever, playful back-and-forth exchanges as their words leading up to it. Federer brings the most varied arsenal in the game, and Tomic has a beautiful array of shots he unleashes as unpredictably as his comments in interviews.
The two have played twice before, both times in Australia. Tomic took a set in their first meeting on grass in Davis Cup play in 2011, when Federer had just arrived from a five-set U.S. Open loss on hard courts, and Federer easily won their fourth-round Australian Open meeting last year.
How might it be different this time? Tomic points to his improved serve, which could keep the match close and help him achieve his goal of winning the first set -- something he believes will be key. Federer, however, remains stronger and steadier, especially as matches go deeper. Will the trashing mean no thrashing? The pre-match talk clearly raised the stakes, but less clear is its effect on the dynamic of the match.
On one hand, Tomic's best chance is to try to rattle Federer somehow. The "if he gets there" prequel was a good start, signaling that he intends to give as good as he gets. On the other hand, Federer is not easily rattled, and he will now be extra motivated to put the youngster in his place.
Another interesting question is which way the crowd will break. Both will have their supporters, but what will happen if the match gets close?
One person is determined to remain on the sideline.
"I'll stay very neutral in this," defending champion Djokovic said with a smile when asked about the encounter.
That won't be easy for the spectators when the old guard and the new start letting their rackets do the talking.