WORLD No.8 Mardy Fish has already hailed Bernard Tomic a superior talent, but Tomic yesterday showed competitive qualities even he was not sure he possessed.
What yesterday propelled the young Australian into the second round of the Australian Open should carry him much further still. This, unquestionably, was a major step.
For the second time in his career, Tomic recovered from a two-sets-to-love grand slam deficit against a higher-ranked opponent, but in far more testing circumstances on a scalding Rod Laver Arena. He beat 22nd seed Fernando Verdasco 4-6, 6-7 (3-7), 6-4, 6-2, 7-5 in more than four hours. It drew a standing ovation and was greeted, inside the locker room, with approving nods.
''He's a great player. He's going to be a great player. He already is,'' Fish said. ''He's gotten so much better since I played him in the fall. He was a good player then, too. He showed out there that he enjoys playing down here. He enjoys this surface. He enjoys playing during the day in the heat, all the conditions and variables that this tournament has. I mean, he's light years ahead of me now, but especially when I was 19, at that time. Very impressive.''
So that's another box ticked, then. Ability, we knew. So, too, a cagey, unorthodox style that can lure his opponents into error. But few could have been certain that his fighting qualities were a match for his instinctive court craft, world-class backhand and love of the big occasion. Now we know something more. Tick, tick, tick.
''You can learn about yourself, and how in the future you can play,'' said Tomic, who will play American Sam Querrey in tomorrow's second round. ''I think there's a lot of guys that get two sets to love down - especially in a grand slam it's the toughest thing to come back like that - and they throw the towel in. Anything's possible if you keep trying … Showed me what I'm capable of doing.''
Indeed, what used to be Lleyton Hewitt's time - the Aussie warrior routine in the afternoon-fightback slot - is now Tomic's. Baton handed. ''A lot of [Hewitt's] matches, same stories, did the impossible: turned around a match in this situation. I think it's a good thing that I can believe in myself at this age. It can only be better for me in the future … When I'm down, I can lift myself and give it a go always.''
Against Russian Igor Andreev at Wimbledon, when he trailed by two sets and a break, Tomic was able to recharge with an overnight break before resuming for the final two sets. This was tougher, better, more satisfying, and the first time in four years that Tomic earned direct main draw entry was also the fourth consecutive time the wildcard graduate had won his opening round. ''Today wasn't fun, it was torture,'' he quipped later. ''I really don't know how I won, so I'm going to recover. I'm the happiest person alive now.''
Indeed, he could have won the first set, and should have won the second; wounded by two awful forehand misses: one on break point in a lengthy ninth game of the first set, and another when holding a set point at 30-40 in the 12th game of the second. That one, which could have levelled the match, was a sitter, but instead plonked into the net. And by early in the third set, he was twice forced to save potentially decisive break-point chances, fortunate that Verdasco was suffering in the sweltering conditions, he later revealed, and unable to put foot on throat.
Tomic's rally came after what commentator Todd Woodbridge called a ''semi-tank'' early in the third, and what the world No.38 admitted was a display of foxing. ''I eased off and seemed I didn't care, and I think that's what [drew] him in a little bit tonight. He thought he was going to win that third set, and when the right time came, I broke him. After that, he started … not hitting his shots.''
While his pre-match decision to question Verdasco's recent form and divulge his exploit-the-backhand game plan did not backfire, Tomic admitted his request for a day match had not been smart. ''Silly me,'' he smiled, while acknowledging the benefits of a ramped-up fitness campaign with post-match treadmill sessions to prepare for such best-of-five situations. ''Did not know that the heat was going to be like this.''
Yet he cannot help but be conscious of the national investment. Australia is sweating on the success of Wimbledon's youngest quarter-finalist in 25 years and, although not yet the finished product, there are constant additions being made to the preliminary sketch. ''It's not a good feeling, especially when you're losing,'' he said. ''You see the fans just disappearing one by one. It's a tough feeling. Then you start winning and they come back one by one.''
Those who returned would have liked what they saw. Impossible not to. One to remember.