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Beyond the Baseline

Australian Open Day 6 preview: Tomic up to the challenge against Federer?

federer-tomic-ao Roger Federer (left) crushed Bernard Tomic in the fourth round of last year's Australian Open. (Aaron Favila/AP)

Storylines and matches to watch on Day 6 of the Australian Open (click here for the order of play):

It's Tomic Time: Enough with the pleasantly snide remarks and the puffery. And I mean that from both sides. After plenty of buildup, Australian Bernard Tomic will finally face four-time champion Roger Federer on Saturday night at Rod Laver Arena in the most anticipated third-round match of the tournament. It doesn't get more prime time than that (at least for the Aussies -- that will be 3 a.m. ET).

Federer schooled Tomic 6-4, 6-2, 6-2 in the fourth round last year, part of the Swiss star's 3-0 record against the 20-year-old.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bIH1E238XbQ

Though Federer has dropped only one set in the three meetings, this is supposed to be a new-and-improved Tomic. He's won 10 consecutive matches to begin the year, including three victories at the Hopman Cup exhibition, where he defeated Novak Djokovic.

"I feel so confident," Tomic said after beating Daniel Brands in the second round. "This is the perfect time to play him."

Tomic has turned heads with the changes in his game. He has more pop on his serve this year and hasn't been broken in his last four matches. He's noticeably stronger as well, which has allowed him to dig out of the corners quickly when his opponents try to exploit his movement. Lastly, he's much more aggressive. He's curtailed those endless slicing rallies and off-pace balls that beg his opponent to make an error. While that variety still forms the basis for his game, he's more than willing to crack a forehand winner when he gets a chance.

This will be a different Tomic than the one Federer saw last year. The question is whether a confident, improved Tomic is enough to knock off Federer, who hasn't lost before the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam tournament since a third-round exit at the 2004 French Open.

Laura Robson and Sloane Stephens offer glimpse of the future: Lefty vs. righty. Power vs. speed. Britain vs. America. Robson, who turns 19 on Monday, has the natural shotmaking ability, while the 19-year-old Stephens has the quickness and scrambling skills. Stephens has been more consistent from tournament to tournament, while Robson is the one with the major scalps. Both possess charming, precocious but volatile personalities on the court, prone to get negative quickly when things aren't going their way.

The two have known each other through the junior ranks but have played only once as professionals, nearly two weeks ago at the Hobart International, where Stephens won 6-4, 7-6 (4). Could this be one of the WTA's marquee rivalries of the future? Given their big games and winning personalities, we can only hope.

"We’re the same age," Stephens said. "I guess it’s a rivalry. I mean, it’s not like [the] Federer-Nadal rivalry. It could be. We’ll see.”

Matches to watch

No. 2 Roger Federer vs. Bernard Tomic (first night match, Rod Laver Arena): Here's something to keep an eye on: How will the Aussie crowd react to this matchup that features its favorite son versus, well, its actual one? Federer tends to be the crowd favorite just about everywhere, including last year's Wimbledon final against Andy Murray. Federer says he's always received great support from the Melbourne fans, but if they choose to side with Tomic, he's ready for it. "If it's totally for him, that's fine, too," Federer said. "I'm always excited when the crowd gets into it. So, yeah, I'm looking forward to the match. I'm sure [there is] going to be a lot of attention, hopefully a lot of TV viewers as well. Hopefully we're going to live up to the expectations."

sloane-stephens-ao Sloane Stephens (pictured) is set to meet fellow teen up-and-comer Laura Robson for the second time in less than two weeks. (Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

No. 3 Andy Murray vs. Ricardas Berankis (third match, Rod Laver Arena): It's nice to see Berankis get a few wins at a Slam. The 22-year-old Lithuanian is a former junior No. 1 who has struggled with injuries the last few years. After winning three matches in qualifying, he defeated Sergiy Stakhovsky and Florian Mayer easily in the first two rounds. I don't expect the undersized Berankis to give Murray much trouble, but it's worth tuning in to just to see Berankis play the quality of tennis many hoped they'd see from him on a regular basis.

No. 29 Sloane Stephens vs. Laura Robson (third match, Court 2): Why this match was scheduled on Court 2 is beyond me. You simply cannot tell me that Roberta Vinci-Elena Vesnina, the second scheduled match on Margaret Court Arena, is a better draw than two of the sport's budding young stars. Expect the standing-room-only crowd to be firmly behind Robson, who was born in Melbourne to Australian parents. Stephens is the in-form player, but Robson has shown that she's always primed for an upset at the Slams. I like Robson's chances. The winner has a tremendous opportunity to make the quarterfinals and potentially play Serena Williams.

No. 13 Milos Raonic vs. No. 17 Philipp Kohlschreiber (fourth match, Court 3): Raonic has quietly made his way through his first two matches and is looking to get into the fourth round for the second major in a row. He has a tricky task against Kohlschreiber, a German speedster who knows how to handle pace and a big serve. Kohlschreiber is my pick in a minor upset.

Kimiko Date-Krumm vs. Bojana Jovanovski (fourth match, Court 2): Can the 42-year-old Date-Krumm continue her historic run? Absolutely. Jovanovski has been struggling for more than a year and may not have the maturity to know how to handle Date-Krumm's flat pace. The winner will get Stephens or Robson next, so it's not ridiculous to suggest that Date-Krumm could make the quarterfinals.
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