If you google him, you'll read about a couple of school boy stunts that, if he'd never picked up a tennis racquet, you'd think little of it. And if you search him on YouTube, the first clip you'll see is the now infamous one where he asks the umpire to ask his father to leave the court, and then thanks the umpire when he gives him a code violation for coaching. Now there are about 1,000 reasons why that may be of interest to you, but if you've bothered to search clips of him I would implore you to go to the second clip - the one of his best points. In it you'll see an array of shots, point constructions and a display of some of the best hands in tennis, against some of the best players in the world, over and over again.
This is the real Bernard Tomic - the player who won the Australian Open Juniors when he was 15 years old (yes 15 years old) and the US Open Juniors when he was 16 years old. The Bernard Tomic that won Sydney in 2013, Bogota in 2014 and again in 2015. The Sydney title was especially encouraging given its proximity to the Australian Open, and much was was expected of him as a result, but unfortunately for him he ran in to Roger Federer for the second year in a row, and failed to progress beyond the 3rd round at his home major. Next year, he had the great fortune of facing Rafa Nadal at his home major (for those of you in the blogosphere that still believe draws are fixed).
So what is it about his game that has brought him his results? His serve is good, but not overwhelmingly so, his forehand can be hit with venom, but is as often hit inside out with side-spin and while equally awkward and effective, nobody would suggest that it is the best in the world. While his backhand is this most reliable shot, both the flat double-hander and the slice (which he has indicated is his favorite shot) it doesn't always have the pace that one would associate with a weapon. He volleys well, and has a solid return of serve when he's in the mood, but none of these tools in his kit would appear to be one that could deliver the coup de grace at any given moment in a point.
That's because Bernard Tomic's greatest strength is his hands - with supple touch, and an ability to both inject and extract pace from the rally, his hands give Tomic a breadth of capability on the ball that eludes the vast majority of his contemporaries. While their games are based on brawn and overwhelming force, Tomic's is based on guile, dexterity and improvisational acumen, reserved for only the most talented of players. And because talent can so frequently be overcome by brute force, Tomic's greatest strength often appears to be insufficient against those players least likely to surpass what I belief will be an outstanding professional career.
The key to tennis is technique, and although Tomic stands at nearly 6'5", it is not physicality that strikes you when you watch him play, it is sheer ball striking ability that conjures angles, spins, pace and delivery that is so unique, it can appear awkward when not firing on all cylinders. I am of the opinion that this is the reason he is so frequently accused of giving less than his best effort. He is, in my opinion, no more or less committed and any other 22-year old (yes, he's only 22) that finds himself seeded at the majors. But the impression left by his technically sensitive game, is conflation of a lack of freneticism with a lack of effort - the two couldn't be less mutually inclusive. Just because you hoot and holler on every stroke, groaning like the pard, sweat like a mule, and slip and slide around the court like you're playing on linoleum, doesn't mean you're giving your best effort. I mean, what about the effort of that "muscle" that sits three feet above your ass?
For anyone with the opportunity to watch Bernard Tomic play in person, the absence of such outward displays does not connote an absence intent. After all, how can you measure how hard a player is thinking? And if you're not putting to best use your understanding of how to hit a tennis ball, how to set up a point, how to disrupt your opponent, and how to use the tools available to you in the most effective way, who's to say you're giving your best effort?
The thing I like the most about Tomic's game is his ability to improvise - no player on tour, with the exception of perhaps Roger Federer, appears to come up with unforeseen ways to win a point than him. It would be easy for him to rely on his physical qualities, which are formidable, but Tomic does what so many players on tour today seem unwilling or unable to do - every time he plays he teaches you something new. He teaches you that you can be just as effective with side spin as with top, that you don't have to slice cross court every time, that you don't have to come over the forehand every time and still beat some of the best players you play. As a matter of fact, if Tomic teaches us anything about tennis, it's that sometimes the best thing you can do to win a point is the exact opposite of what your opponent wants you to do. And to do that takes skill, intelligence, and a commitment to a tactical approach that could be more effective, but will deliver you to a great deal of criticism if it isn't - that takes a kind of courage of conviction that tactics and technique are the key to success in tennis.
Tomic doesn't get stuck in cross court rallies with players who are better at that than he is, and in doing so, straight away, he takes away a strength of 90% of his opponents. He is also capable of hitting inside out from either wing, frequently with sidespin causing his ball to trail away from his opponent, having the added effect of disrupting the optimal footwork and point of contact for his opponent, and eliciting errors or soft responses (what I would call "soft" errors that don't lose the point immediately, but lead to an opponents shot that will). This too diminishes the impact of one of the characteristics that separates the best players in the world from the rest of us - their footwork. One of the reasons why it's always guess work as to exactly when a player starts to get tired, is that the stroke is actually the last place where it will show up - the first place it shows up is in the footwork. And this is why errors begin to pop up on players when they start to get tired, before the racquet head decelerates appreciably. Essentially, as the body tires, it can no longer reliably repeat the optimal technique.
The brilliance of Tomic's technique is that his ball, so quirky on one shot, so flat and true on the next, deep and penetrating on one wing, then disruptively short and angled on the next, mimics the kind of muscle memory amnesia that frequently results from fatigue. As such, when he is at his more imperious, it is not Tomic his game that appears awkward, but often his opponent's. And like Leo Messi, causing a world cup winning defender like Jerome Boateng to trip over their own feet nothing tells an opponent that they're for a long day, like making him destroy himself for no apparent reason. That only happens when your technique is superior to your opponents, and I can't think of many players on the ATP tour that do that better than Bernard Tomic.
I have a feeling we're going to see the real Bernard Tomic in Washington, DC. Not the guy that so many people seem to want to criticize. And when he comes to the Citi Open, I'm going to watch him practice and I'm going to watch him play, and I'm pretty sure I'm going to learn one or two things along the way.
For that gift, to all tennis players, I say "Thank you Citi Open".