Brisbane One of the many differences between Bernard Tomic and his friend Nick Kyrgios is Tomic's inferior record against top-10 opponents. But in the same week that Kyrgios upstaged world No.2 Andy Murray at the Hopman Cup exhibition, Tomic made a bold new year statement of his own by eliminating eighth-ranked Kei Nishikori on Pat Rafter Arena.
En route to a semi-final against former No.4 Milos Raonic, Tomic smacked 13 aces – nine of them in the first set – past the former US Open finalist to reach the last four at the Brisbane International for the second time in three years. He had not taken a set off Nishikori in their two previous meetings, including a 6-0, 6-4 beating in last year's quarter-final that served as both a spur to do better and a measure of how far he believes he has come.
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Tomic's first win in 10 attempts in Australia against an opponent ranked in single figures takes his overall record against top 10 foes to 7-32; four of those wins now having come in the past 12 months. Which still does not rival Kyrgios (5-10, if we include Murray, which is debatable) but, in makes for a highly encouraging start to 2016.
"Obviously this win is huge," Tomic said after triumphing 6-3, 1-6, 6-3. "Now I'm at the level [in the] last few months [of] being in the top 20 and playing these players that have been consistently in the top 10, five in the world. It's a huge, huge feeling to play, and it motivates you. That's what I needed. I needed match wins against these high-profile players around the world.
"I think every match you win against a player like this is just confidence for myself, and step by step I'm achieving my goal this year ... of being in the top 10. It's near. If I keep playing the way I'm playing there is a chance."
An unusually demonstrative Tomic also showed great passion and resolve. He scrambled to run down balls he might not always have got to, and impressed Nishikori with his movement, as well as a serve the Queenslander believes is about 15 per cent better than this time last year.
"Was a different level for me today. I've improved so much," the 23-year-old said. "Being in this match was a huge opportunity for me, huge test, and I was playing very, very solid. He was playing also good. So it was quality, quality tennis out there."
Tomic admitted the see-sawing third set was the reason he got "very emotional and fired-up, and I felt like I needed that". He bellowed and pumped his fist, revved himself up like we have rarely seen from someone whose intensity has never been his calling card. Nor, indeed, has his court coverage.
"Obviously I didn't play my best tennis today," Nishikori said. "But I think he play good tennis, too. He serve really well. He saved many important points with his serve. I mean, he was running side to side and he got me so many balls back, so it was really tough to play."
A key focus in recent months has been on shot selection, Tomic said, "and I think with matches and consistency last year comes the right mindset and as long as I'm staying healthy and focusing I can look for a bright start this year".
His buddy Raonic now awaits, last year's runner-up resuming after a season hobbled by foot and back injuries. "Obviously it's a whole new game," said Tomic of his battle with an opponent who also stands at 196-centimetres. "Milos plays that one-two game very, very well. After the serve he has a huge forehand, so you have to move him and be aggressive off the first ball and get him running quickly. The serve is very, very good. There's nothing you can do if he's hitting his spots. You've just got to compete every point and maybe I get some chances."
Raonic admits he has been monitoring Tomic from afar, and then more closely on Friday against the fleet-footed Nishikori. "Bernie, he's doing things well. He's serving well; making him play a lot. He's hitting the ball well. He's hitting through the court and keeping Kei off balance," said the world No.14, after eliminating young Frenchman Lucas Pouille 6-4, 6-4.
"He's made great strides forward, which he always had within him, but it was sort of the professionalism and what he did off the court to put those pieces together. I think he's doing that now."