Australian teenager Bernard Tomic (above) put up a spirited fight against Rafael Nadal on a day when youth shone brightly at Melbourne Park. (AP)
MELBOURNE, Australia -- A week after staging its first ever Kids’ Day, Melbourne Park found itself playing host to another on Saturday. First a pair of young guns (Alexandr Dolgopolov, Milos Raonic) scored third-round upsets against a pair of big ones (Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Mikahil Youzhny). Then Croatian boy wonder Marin Cilic played to type, outlasting John Isner in a five-setter to advance to the fourth round of a Grand Slam -- for the eighth time. Then Bernard Tomic nearly provided the exclamation point in his nightcap match against Rafael Nadal, pushing the top-ranked Spaniard in a hard-fought three-setter that spanned two-and-a-half hours and even more Nadal shirt changes. Throw in third-seeded Novak Djokovic (who plays his fourth-round match against Nicolas Almagro on Sunday), and the men’s draw -- a quarter of which is comprised of man-children aged 23 or under -- could be brought to you, at least in part, by Hi-C.
Raonic, 20, bested Youzhny in four sets -- a significant signpost for a guy whose life arc is best tracked with a Garmin. Raonic was born in Montenegro and raised in Canada. He trained in Montreal up until three months ago, when he decamped for Barcelona to work with Galo Blanco, a former Spanish pro who now coaches for Tennis Canada. The partnership has produced a player who covers so much ground -- on the court and off -- that you can’t afford to not pay attention. That goes double for post-match news conferences. Raonic spent most of his delivering a Cliff’s Notes version of his biography at warp speed. When he quickly mentioned that his uncle was vice president, it took nearly until the end of the interview session to catch up to what he had said.
“Of what?” one reporter asked. “The country?"
“Yes,” Raonic said.
He wasn’t nearly as stealthy making his points with Youzhny, blitzing him off the court with an explosive service game that, if it hasn’t yet aroused the U.N.’s curiosity, it’s certainly gotten the attention of the ATP’s power players. “His serve is huge,” gushed Nadal, who got his first introduction to Raonic and his choice weapon in last year’s Japan Open. Michael Llodra, who lost to Raonic in the third round here, put Raonic’s first stroke in the same class as big bombers such as John Isner and Ivo Karlovic.
Youzhny faced Raonic for the first time on Saturday and came away impressed too. But ultimately he thought it was his own sluggish play -- not the kid’s serve -- that was the difference. “I broke him four times,” Youzhny said. “Usually if you break somebody four times, it’s enough [to win]. I needed to be much faster than I was today. I gave him chance to play and do whatever he wants.”
Likewise, Tsonga -- who fell in five to Dogopolov -- was careful not to give the 22-year-old Ukrainian too much credit. After all Tsonga had beaten him before, at Wimbledon, though it took another five sets to close that deal. “[He]’s a good player,” the top-ranked Frenchman said. Tsonga came into that Wimbledon while rebounding from and hip injuries then, and he seemed a bit stiff out at Margaret Court Arena today. “His physical form is probably not the best now,” Dolgopolov said. “For sure it’s probably the biggest match I’ve won.”
Brandishing a big serve that rivals the tour's heaviest hitters, Milos Raonic (above) stormed past Mikhail Youzhny on Saturday. (Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)
Where Raonic’s career in tennis is more like a triumph of globalization, Dolgopolov’s is a homegrown success. He’s called his dad, Oleksandr (a former pro), coach since age 3. Not long after that he was calling one of Oleksandr’s former charges, ’99 French Open finalist Andrei Medvedev, dad. “I was always cheering for him,” recalled Dogopolov of his primary pro inspiration. “I always liked how he played.”
And yet even with the abundance of parental units Dolgopolov still managed to outmaneuver local oversight -- most memorably at tournament. His mom and dad, he said, “lost me somewhere on the site.” When they found him, “I was surrounded with all these people. I couldn’t read or write. They were just taking my autograph. I was just writing letters.”
Cilic was a bit older, 7, when he started making a name for himself. In five years time Cilic was trading strokes with his country’s top player, former world No. 2 Goran Ivanisevic. Now 22, Cilic has only been a pro for five years, and already he’s 15th in the world.
Tomic is operating at just as torrid a pace. Up until last night his personality had proved to be a real speed bump. “A legend in his own lunchbox” is how one Australian newspaper headline summed up the 18-year-old; other stories cite the following as proof: Tomic drew a one-month suspension after walking out of a match because he disagreed with a line call and once groused of having playing past his bedtime. His game -- which forgoes brute force for angles and finesse -- is a well-worn topic of discussion, too. He calls it funky. Roger Rasheed, Lleyton Hewitt’s former coach, calls it junky.
Against Nadal it was more like funk-ay. After dropping the first set Tomic charged to a 4-0 lead in the second before Nadal solved him. “He’s the kind of the player who makes you play bad,” he said. “I’m sure he’s going to be a big rival.”
Tomic thinks so too -- especially once he learns how not to give up big leads. “I thought it was over at 4-Love,” said the chastened Aussie, ranked 199th and on a mission to crack the top 100 by year’s end. “Just shows how much he can come back. Against these guys, especially in the top 10, you can’t afford to lose concentration.”
Australia has long been fertile ground for such learning experiences. In 2004 an 18-year-old Nadal swallowed his medicine against Lleyton Hewitt in the third round. In 1995 a 22-year-old Patrick Rafter took his lumps against Andre Agassi in the round of 16. But in 1996, a 19-year-old Mark Philippoussis set the standard, upending top-ranked Pete Sampras in the round of 32. Tomic followed in that tradition two years ago when, at age 16, he notched a first-round victory over Potito Starace; he became the youngest man ever to win a match at the Open. This is a country that makes men of its boys quickly. Some youngsters start drinking as early as 16! What better place than right here to charge a glass to a generation that is fast coming of age.