Wunderkind

01.19.13

Tennis Bad Boy Bernard Tomic: The Next Roger Federer?

The hometown wild child comes up against the champ he’s been trash-talking at the Australian Open today. Why his winning streak may show the game’s future beyond the Swiss maestro.

Twenty-year-old Bernard Tomic’s résumé isn’t bad: He’s wrestled in the nude on the balcony of a high-rise at 5:30 a.m., been reprimanded for driving his bright orange BMW like an idiot, had a two-day birthday bender, and smack-talked Roger Federer. Oh yeah, he’s also pretty good at tennis.

“If he gets that far," said the Aussie bad boy when first asked about potentially colliding with Federer in the third round of the Australian Open. “Tennis is a funny sport, so we’ll see.”

Well, we’re finally here. The tennis god will take on the hometown hero that just won’t shut up.

“I feel so confident. This is the perfect time to play him,” Tomic said after his last match. “I think, you know, I’ve got a good attitude to win. I think I can do it.”

Who is this chump?

The story of Tomic is a tale of unlimited and squandered potential. A phenomenon turned party boy. At least, that’s what it seems like. Somehow, without really accomplishing anything, he’s got himself a rivalry with Federer. This is hard to do. Especially when you’re ranked 43rd in the world and may get your ass handed to you in the most-hyped match of the tournament. Why is the tennis world so keen on nailing this kid as a waste or a savior before he really does anything?

Tomic debuted at 15 and soon snatched the boys’ singles title at the Aussie and U.S. Opens. At 18, he reached the quarterfinals at Wimbledon and hit 27th in the world. His rise was inevitable. He had swagger. He was a brat. And he was good. For the best players, that’s how it goes.

Then Federer happened. It was the fourth round in Melbourne last year and it was a slaughter. The failure didn’t stop there, as the wunderkind exited the other slams early. He was accused of slacking in matches. He made headlines not for his potential, but for his off-court shenanigans. By the end of the season, Tomic’s ranking plummeted and he was booted from Australia’s Davis Cup team. Long gone was the phenom, replaced by Tomic “The Tank Engine.”

This year, so far, is different. He felled world No. 1 Novak Djokovic. Tomic won his first tour title in Sydney. Riding a 10-match winning streak and a clean slate in 2013, it may finally be Tomic-time.

Not so fast, kid. Federer, who seems to be focusing more on his fashionable pink and black color scheme than actual tennis, hasn’t kept mum while Tomic flaps his gums.

Tennis is desperate to find the next big thing. Just look at the top 20—it’s four giants and a slew of other guys. And Federer knows this.

“Look, I have so much more experience than him,” Federer said. He’s right. Federer has won 17 majors. He hasn’t missed the quarterfinals of a slam since 2004. He’s 3-0 against Tomic.

But we still care about Tomic. We have to.

While Federer seems like he can go on forever, he is getting older. Rafael Nadal’s knee, which has kept him off the court for eight months, is slowly falling apart (When a nasty stomach virus is enough to knock you out of a major tournament, things are bad). That leaves the enigmatic, donkey-cheese connoisseur Djokovic at the top.

When Federer and Nadal exit, who’ll be his rival? Andy Murray, 2012’s best guy that no one ever remembers.  Unless he snarls a bit more, he’s pretty boring.

Tennis is desperate to find the next big thing. Just look at the top 20—it’s four giants and a slew of other guys. And Federer knows this. He knows it’s important that Tomic is more Luke Skywalker and less Lindsay Lohan.

“There’s certain characters and certain players that have an easier time to play against good players. I was one of those as well,” said Federer, who 10 years ago, as a pony-tailed punk, won his first grand slam. He was 21.