Aussie prodigy's unlimited potential turning heads

Updated: January 24, 2008

The Next Big Thing?

MELBOURNE -- The feature attraction on Show Court 3 at Melbourne Park on Thursday morning was 15-year-old Bernard Tomic, the German-born Australian of Croatian heritage signed by sports marketing giant IMG two years at age 13.

Tomic defeated the No. 1 seed in the junior draw, 17-year-old Cesar Ramirez of Mexico, in straight sets. Slender and fine-featured, his lightly frosted blond hair held up by a white bandana, Tomic ground out most of his points from the baseline with a crackling forehand and rarely ventured to the net. He worked quickly and almost silently, exclaiming only once that we could hear, and only occasionally gave his racket a quick bounce when he didn't execute.

To our surprise, there were no chanting hordes of either Aussies or Croats, perhaps because of the 11 a.m. starting time. The small crowd did include the venerable Tony Roche, who's being credited with resuscitating Lleyton Hewitt's game. Roche spent a week working with Tomic a year ago, but the teenager is coached by his father, John.

Tomic

Tomic could meet fourth-seeded American Ryan Harrison of New Braunfels, Tex. if both get through the semifinals. He's a teen of few words, although he did smile when we asked him about the mahimahi he caught on a recent deep-sea fishing trip. "A meter ten (about 43 inches) and 25 kilos (55 pounds)," he said.

One of the big kahunas of Australian tennis, two-time U.S. Open champion Patrick Rafter, who was just unsurprisingly elected to the National Tennis Hall of Fame, followed Tomic in the interview room at Rod Laver Arena on Thursday.

"He's got a lot of potential," said Rafter, who hasn't seen Tomic play lately but hopes to hit with him sometime this year. "He had a few things he had to sort of work on to get stronger and bigger, but he's still pretty young.

"But now he's coming to the time where he starts to get some really good grounding, and one of those things was his serve & he had potential there to push up and get a bit stronger with it. I thought he had a really great backhand, just a world-class backhand, and his forehand was potentially lethal.

"I'm not going to talk about people's forehands, because mine was probably the worst in the game."

Tomic will play hard-court Futures tournaments in Australia and New Zealand early this year and on clay in Europe leading up to the junior French Open, according to his agent, Lawrence Frankopan.

Upward And Onward

Israeli pair Jonathan Erlich and Andy Ram reached their first-ever Grand Slam final Thursday, defeating sixth seeds Mark Knowles (Bahamas) and Mahesh Bhupathi (India), 6-4, 6-4. Knowles and Bhupathi had opened up the draw by knocking off the world No. 1 team of Bob and Mike Bryan Wednesday night.

"I put so much effort into this, I have more exhaustion than happiness right now," a beaming Erlich said afterward, as Ram's cell phone buzzed continually on the table in front of him with messages and texts from well-wishers. "We've been waiting for this for a while."

Ram portrayed himself as the calmer of the two, having already won two mixed doubles finals at Slams. "Joni got crazy afterwards," he said. "Andy's consistently crazy," Erlich retorted.

The eighth-seeded team will take on the seventh-seeded French tandem of Arnaud Clement and Michael Llodra Saturday.

Erlich, 30, and Ram, 27, said they are leaning toward playing in the prestigious event in Dubai in early March. That country is normally off-limits to Israeli citizens, but all ATP tournaments have to guarantee entry visas for qualified players. The duo would be the first athletes from their nation to compete there.

In interviews last year, Erlich and Ram said ATP officials discouraged them from playing in Doha or Dubai, but now "They say they just have to take care of security," Ram said. "I think they're willing to accept us. We have to talk about it after Davis Cup."

Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. E-mail her at bonniedford@aol.com.

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Djokovic's Mission

Djokovic

Serbia's Novak Djokovic plans to use his success on the ATP Tour to help build a national tennis center in his home country.

"There are two stories. One is that the country is trying to build up a national tennis center, and the other story is that my family and me, we're trying to build up our own," Djokovic said.

"This is one of my lifetime goals," he added. "I love tennis and I really would like to have many professional facilities for my brothers and for all the kids, and in the end for me because everybody wants to spend more time at home."

Djokovic finished last year with more than $4.3 million in career earnings, and is guaranteed at least another $297,670 after beating fifth-seeded David Ferrer of Spain 6-0, 6-3, 7-5 to reach the Australian Open semifinals.

His brother Marco competed in the junior tournament here, losing in the first round.

Despite his success, and that of compatriots Ana Ivanovic, who will face Maria Sharapova in the Australian Open final, and Jelena Jankovic, Djokovic said tennis facilities in Serbia are far from ideal.

"There's still no system in our country for tennis, and people are trying to get used to the tennis, because it's now the No. 1 sport," he said.

"More and more kids are getting involved and it's necessary to have some tennis centers. So soon we hope & we can at least build up one or two tennis centers."

--AP

Wonderful Water

Ivanovic

Along with rest and plenty of practice, Ana Ivanovic has nominated humble H2O as one of the most important ingredients in her match-day regiment.

"Hydration is obviously essential in this heat, and I actually begin the process the day before a match by drinking two or three liters of water in the afternoon and evening," the fourth-seeded Serb wrote in her blog on the WTA Web site. "Before my match I will drink another one-and-half liters."

Ivanovic also relies heavily on her alarm clock for the perfect match preparation.

"Getting up in good time is obviously the most important thing, so that you can relax and go through your routine -- eating, stretching, warm-up and tactical planning -- in good time," she said.

--AP

Inbox

Bonnie D. Ford is on the grounds at the Australian Open for the two-week event. She'll have firsthand knowledge of everything that's transpiring Down Under. Send your questions to Bonnie here.