By Dave Gertler
(January 10, 2014) SYDNEY – While the women’s draw at the 2014 Apia International was characterized by the early exits of top seeds and drawcards, the men’s top seed and – at least for the local crowd – top drawcard both remain to battle it out in their final at Ken Rosewall Arena on Saturday night.
Australia’s Bernard Tomic, who needed a wildcard to get into an event where he’s defending his first title - an indication of his inconsistent results over the past 12 months – has shown largely a return to form throughout the four matches he’s played to reach the final.
The trajectory of his final opponent, Juan Martin Del Potro, has been slightly different, his bye into the second round meaning preparation consists of only three matches. His first and second matches in Sydney revealed signs of early-season nerves and cobwebs needing to be dusted off, dropping the opening set in his first match against Nicolas Mahut, then being outplayed by Radek Stepanek in the second set of his quarterfinal match.
Perhaps Del Potro, when facing Dmitry Tursunov in the semifinal on Friday, was eager to make a statement as much to himself as to the spectators, fans and media ahead of the Australian Open, when he elevated his level of strike force – and pulled the rug out from underneath an in-form opponent in Tursunov who was himself at the top of his game. At times during the 6-4, 6-2 semifinal against Tursunov, it felt like Del Potro was treating the match like a hitting session so far lacking from his Australian Open training schedule.
Del Potro assessed his form after the Tursunov match, saying, “Yeah, I think I played the best match of the week. I played great with my forehands and serves. I didn’t make easy errors and I play solid on the baselines and I play good dropshots, good volleys.”
Whereas Del Potro arrives in the final at the top of his game, Tomic, having eked out an uncomfortable three-set win over Sergiy Stakhovsky – at times showing signs of frustration and fatigue – may as a result carry some self-doubt into his title defense match. “I know what Juan is gonna be doing,” said Tomic, “Obviously he’s very, very good at what he does. This is why he’s there. I have to do something different. I have to play my game.”
Having played his ‘own’ style of game to win against his quarterfinal against Alexandr Dolgopolov – an opponent against whom he had only one win in six matches previously. Tomic was able to dictate play in long rallies against an similarly crafty opponent in Dolgopolov, eventually wresting control of the match and frustrating Dolgopolov into submission.
Tomic knows however, against Del Potro, whose serve and forehand are of the best on the tour, “You know, not much you can do when he’s playing good,” and having just witnessed Del Potro’s dominant play against Tursunov, said, “I have to go for my shots and play the way I played in my first round and the quarters to win,” adding that, “He could get tight and I play a little bit differently, so hopefully I can get buzzed up and play my tennis.”
Conclusion? Tomic will be hoping to draw Del Potro into longer rallies to establish control of a cat-and-mouse dynamic to as many points as he can early on. The crowd will be a factor if he can do this, especially if it manifests in an early break. He will also be hoping Del Potro has an off-night on serve.
Del Potro may take a few games to get warmed up. He will be keen to show Ken Rosewall Arena the finesse and shot-variation which along with his power, are equally responsible for his place in the world’s top 5. Look for Del Potro to approach the net as well as mix it up with drop shots and varying his pace, as a means of both unsettling the rhythm of his opponent, as well as annexing his own share of support from an Aussie crowd who have a soft spot for swashbuckling all-court tennis players.
The pair have only played once before – in 2013 on a Washington hardcourt, where Del Potro won 6-3, 6-3. Their second meeting has potential to be a much closer battle, but 25-year-old Del Potro – at the peak of his career – is more likely to match Tomic’s court-smarts and tennis intelligence that so often wins him matches against higher ranked players, than 21-year-old Tomic is likely to cancel out the pure force of Del Potro with his own shot-making ability.
One thing’s for sure, it will be fun to see him try.
Dave Gertler is a tennis journalist, player and musician based in Sydney covering the Australian summer of tennis for Tennis Panorama News. Follow his Twitter updates from the tournament @TennisNewsTPN, follow him on his personal Twitter @davegertler, read his blog, and listen to his podcast, Tennis Days .