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Peaking nicely

Hitting his straps: Bernard Tomic during his defeat of Daniel Brands.

Hitting his straps: Bernard Tomic during his defeat of Daniel Brands. Photo: Pat Scala

ONE set down. Court surface hotter than a well-used wok. A tall, troublesome, big-serving opponent firing bullets from the fourth floor. For those yet to cast their vote in the national referendum on Bernie Tomic, this was a good time to tune in.

This was a moment that  would either entrench preconceptions, or change a few minds.

Would Tomic unfurl the infamous white flag he flew against Andy Roddick at Flushing Meadows? Or would we see the more mature, more tenacious competitor who had won the Sydney International?

The answer? Vote1. New Improved Bernie.

They might not yet be building a case at the Melbourne Museum in which to exhibit Tomic’s heart beside Phar Laps. But this was a performance of, well, decent perseverance. A routine day at the office for Lleyton Hewitt and no match for compatriot James Duckworth’s inevitably futile four hour and 52 minute ordeal on court three. Still, a welcome counterpoint to Samantha Stosur’s mental meltdown on Wednesday.

There was an asterisk. How had Bernie gotten himself into such a pickle against one of the least celebrated Brands on the ATP Tour – the 120th-ranked German qualifier Daniel Brands? The sweltering conditions provide no alibi. Tomic hails from Queensland where, you assume, he occasionally flips the sun roof on his sports car.

Put it down to Tomic’s feet, which belonged to one of the statues in the stadium forecourt, not on centre court. But if Tomic seemed a touch lethargic, this would always be a dangerous assignment. The one after the reassuring first-round victory and before the highly anticipated Saturday night blockbuster with Roger Federer. To his credit, Tomic did just enough at the right times, like the brilliant running forehand whipped down the line to clinch the vital break in the second set.

So it is unleashed. The overbearing hype that will engulf the participants in Saturday night’s match. Something, you suspect, Tomic will embrace. His thanks for the crowd – ‘‘Without you guys, I wouldn’t have gotten through that’’ – still seems overtly political. But, although he has headed for the exit early once or twice, Tomic seems at home on the big stage.

Oddly, he spared the blushes of the Tennis Australia officials who have suspended him from Davis Cup play. Without his victory, they would have overseen the worst Australian performance here in the open era.

When Australian Open organisers generously boosted prizemoney for the early round losers, it was seen as a way of cementing relations with their multi-national constituency. Now, with only one Australian advancing beyond the second round, their largesse seems the most generous form of economic stimulus since the baby bonus.

Besides Tomic, perhaps only Duckworth earned his keep. The prototypical, stony-faced Queenslander is no Henri Leconte, which, given the Frenchman’s transformation from amusing savant to circus show freak, is no bad thing. Indeed, wearing similar white and yellow shirts and white hats, it was difficult to distinguish Duckworth from his Slovakian opponent Blaz Kavcic.

But, first because of his name, and then because of his heroic endurance, Duckworth at least gained cult figure status. Taking desperate comedic liberties with his surname, one spectator blew a duck caller. Soon, the chant of ‘‘quack, quack, quack’’ had risen between games, and there was a chorus of ‘‘rubber ducky’’ as the match entered a fifth enervating hour.

All unexpectedly amusing and more stirring than the early cries of ’’Come on Ducky,’’ which seemed to have been borrowed from the script of ’’Are You Being Served.’’ Davis Cup captain Pat Rafter sat courtside to judge whether Duckworth might make – please take pity on me –  a quack recruit. As he hauled Kavcic to 8-8 in a tortuous fifth set, Duckworth did not look – I’m sorry about this – out of water.

Duckworth though joined the ranks of  brave losers – beaten 10-8 in the fifth. Tomic was the only Australian to fight on. The nature of his struggle should ensure he has a few more fans in his corner on Saturday night.

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