By Jon Wertheim
January 17, 2013
No. 2 Roger Federer advanced to his record 39th straight Grand Slam third round on Thursday.
Michael Dodge/Getty Images

MELBOURNE, Australia -- At its essence, tennis is a game of contrasts. Lefty versus righty. Defensive retriever versus attacking aggressor. Ornate shot maker versus winning-ugly grinder. Country X versus Country Y.

But is there a more griping dichotomy than veteran champion versus ambitious upstart? The kid says, "Whatever, old man. Your had your time. Now kindly step aside." The seasoned star says, "Not so fast, kid. Pay some dues first. How about a little respect, huh? And get a haircut. I'm a legend, you're a punk."

When the Australian Open draw was revealed last week, the locals immediately took a highlighter to the third round, one potential match in particular: Bernard Tomic versus Roger Federer. (A cynic would think they manipulated the draw to create this Saturday night match.) Australian hopeful against the greatest of all time. But it also represents about as great a differentiation as you'll find in tennis.

Federer's entire image is predicated on refinement and dignity and precision. He is 31 going on 51. As for Tomic, age 20, here are some recent headlines:

Tomic insists it's open season after showdown with police

Tomic in hot water after spa fight

Bernard Tomic found guilty of failing to stop for police

Federer's family is famously, well, normal. Conventional, understated. When Rafael Nadal beat Federer to win Wimbledon 2008, it was Robert Federer -- Roger's dad -- among the first to offer congratulations. Tomic? His father, John, already a minor legend on the circuit, has openly predicted his son will one day rule the world.

Federer takes pains to avoid conflict. Always has. But you get the distinct feeling that his sensibilities are offended by the kid. Last weekend, Federer was fed this floater: "Is [Tomic] a player you can see jumping into the top 10 in the next 12 months?"

He did not send back the desired response: "I think we should go step by step, see how it goes. Let's speak in a year's time. 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. Yeah, let's go step by step."

What did Federer feel about the potential matchup?

"He's also got his work cut out, you know, in the first few rounds," the four-time Australian Open champ said. "He will be making a mistake about thinking about me in the third round because he also has to get there."

[Federer, Tomic exchange barbs before Australian Open]

What he may as well have said: "Dude, I go through draws the way Guy Fieri goes through lard. Ask me about an anticipated match against Djokovic or Murray, and I'll grudgingly address it. Catch me on a good day, I'll grant you DelPo. But Tomic? The guy who guest stars in Cops, Brisbane? Who tanks matches? Who -- and this is tough -- got on Pat Rafter's bad side? Come on. That's gum on the bottom of my Nikes, pal."

But that was the veteran bridling at the arriviste. Here's the kid's response when asked about facing Federer in the third round:

Q: "Third round against Roger Federer, can you beat him?"

A: "Well, if he gets that far."

They both did. Federer beat Nikolay Davydenko 6-3, 6-4, 6-4 on Thursday in the second round. He hasn't dropped a set in two matches, doing a fairly convincing impression of the player who won this event three years ago. Tomic has done his part, too, showing off his variety, looking dazzling at times and failing to drop serve in two rounds.

Tomic, in an on-court interview after a 6-7 (4), 7-5, 7-6 (3), 7-6 (8) win over Daniel Brands in the second round, recalled his two losses to Federer last year. "I definitely got my ass kicked both times," including a 6-4, 6-2, 6-2 spanking in Melbourne.

So now it's on. Old versus new. Federer versus Tomic. "The Saturday Night Special -- our very own Bernard Tomic versus Federer," the hyperventilating Australian media put it. Tomic proclaims himself up for it.

Federer won't come out and outwardly assert it. But you suspect the old man is up for it, too.


What is your take on Ryan Harrison?-- Subhadeep, Cincinnati

? I like Harrison's game. I like his unapologetic ambition. I like his work ethic, his genuine love for his craft, his absence of any "moral victory" or "happy to be part of the show" rationalizations. On the other hand, it's a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately world, and the results simply haven't been there yet for the 20-year-old. Novak Djokovic had some real insight on this after beating Harrison 6-1, 6-2, 6-3 on Wednesday night.

"When I was his age, you have to in a way have confidence in yourself and try to set up a high goal, because that's something that inspires you always to practice, to work hard," Djokovic said. "I don't see anything wrong in having high ambitions and goals. ... In the end of the day, of course on the other hand you have to have respect for the sport and for your opponents, and just take it step by step."

Can we agree to a moratorium on assigning Mona Barthel any sort of dark horse/upset special title until she can consistently get past the first round of a major? -- Greg, Philadelphia

? I have to call myself out here. Barthel -- despite a huge serve, nice hands and some encouraging results -- has made a fool of me one too many times. You know what they say? Fool me once, Mona Barthel, shame on me. Fool me twice, Mona Barthel, shame on me. Fool me a half-dozen times, and I remove you from my dark horse list and replace you with the likes of Donna Vekic.

Would American tennis be better off having one great player or a couple of mid-range players?-- Jim McEntee, Pittsford, N.Y.

? Good question. Depends on your goal. If it's to fill sessions at a major or create an appealing TV product, you might choose volume. Otherwise, give me quality over quantity. Or better yet, Spain.

Will Lleyton Hewitt announce his retirement at the Australian Open just as Andy Roddick did at the U.S. Open? Despite being a great competitor, he has no chance to win his home Slam. He really should call it a day, right?-- Raj, Bridgewater, N.J.

? After Hewitt's opening-round loss to Janko Tipsarevic, he was asked, "Have you thought about the possibility that this might be the last one?"

Answer: "No."

Your discussion of player origins makes it clear that assigning players a home country is almost arbitrary. Perhaps we should eliminate the fiction and just let them belong to their sponsors: "The great tennis player from Nike, Maria Sharapova" or "The spark of the Uniqlo tennis renaissance, Novak Djokovic."-- Paul R., Boston

? I think it's one reason that Davis Cup is losing relevance. Countries have become so arbitrary. Scan a media guide and note how many player reside in a country other than their birthplace. German-born Jamie Hampton advanced to the third round, still another American prospect. Swiss resident Jo-Wilfried Tsonga marched on as well, the first in a legion of Frenchmen. On it goes. Borders are less relevant. And thus so are distinctions created around them.

Shots, Miscellany

? Kimiko Date-Krumm, 42, the oldest player in the draw, keeps going. Thursday, she beat Shahar Peer 6-2, 7-5 to make the third round. The youngest player, Vekic, 16, lost to No. 10 Caroline Wozniacki.

? John Grace of Bel Air, Md: "You write, 'No one is a fan of grunting.' Correction: By definition, if the women and girls weren't a fan of their own grunting, then this wouldn't even be a topic. You write further, 'There's a sense that players grunt tactically and use it as gamesmanship.' Do you honestly and sincerely consider this debatable? A grunt or even shriek in extreme exertion is one thing, but when you can hear the shriek change in both pitch and decibel levels long after the ball is struck, there can be only one reason. They are doing it on purpose, and it's as cheap and unsportsmanlike as clearing your throat when your opponent is putting on the green."

? Linda Pearce on the declining health of Aussie tennis.

? More generally, man, the Melbourne Age is a must-read during this event.

? This is an oldie but goodie. Kurian of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada: An interesting mention of Juan Martin del Potro in this Economist article.

? Jay of Papillion, Neb., has long-lost siblings. Ryan Harrison and Tom Branson from Downton Abbey. (Don't get Harrison going on Irish politics!)

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