MELBOURNE, Jan 18 (Reuters) - Wayward talent. Flawed genius. Wasted potential.
Few athletes have inspired so many backhanded compliments as Australia’s Bernard Tomic, who has alienated the country’s entire tennis establishment while keeping his fans in the palm of his hand.
The lanky 20-year-old has packed a lot into a year, going from the toast of the nation with a fourth-round run at his home grand slam in 2012, to a pantomime villain booted out of the Davis Cup team for a perceived lack of commitment.
In the space of a week, the pendulum of public opinion has swung back in Tomic’s favour at Melbourne Park.
The Australian number one will head into Saturday’s third-round clash against Roger Federer willed on by 15,000 of his compatriots at Rod Laver Arena.
The 43rd-ranked Tomic brings a lone ATP title on his resume, won at the Sydney International in the leadup, versus Federer’s 17 grand slam titles.
He has not let the gulf in achievement quell his bluster, however, declaring himself full of the belief to win.
The Federer clash will be a re-match of their fourth-round encounter at Melbourne Park last year, when a marginally more humble Tomic was spanked in straight sets.
Tomic’s performance against Federer after another year’s development will be under the microscope, according to Mats Wilander, who says the player’s unorthodox style - and his willingness to trust - are his greatest assets.
“When you’re trying to play like everyone else, running around and hitting forehands as often as possible...then you can see there’s a limit to it,” he told Reuters.
”But with Bernard he gets into a zone and he doesn’t see Djokovic the other side, he sees the opportunities.
“We don’t know how good he can be. No one should ever think that they could put a limit on someone who plays that unorthodox with so much feel,” added Wilander.
“For me there’s really only physically that he can be stopped. Mentally and feel-wise he’s as good as the best players in the world.”
Wilander’s analysis jars with the enduring image of Tomic on Australian television, a sports car driving playboy in Queensland’s Gold Coast getting into trouble for thumbing his nose at traffic police.
Tomic, who is still coached by his father and cosseted by his team, has been accused of being lazy by Davis Cup captain Pat Rafter, who expressed concerns he would never fulfill his potential.
The criticisms appeared justified as the player appeared to stop trying in a series of matches last year, earning the nickname “Tomic the Tank Engine”.
Other Australian tennis identities have queued up to lay the boot in, with his former coach declaring him a ‘lost soul’ and former U.S. Open champion Sam Stosur suggesting he needed to “knuckle down” in his career.
Tomic’s success leading into his match against Federer has seen olive branches offered by Rafter, however, with Australia desperate for an heir to ageing former world number one Lleyton Hewitt.
But only hard work and time will tell if Tomic can make it, Swede Wilander said.
“Physically, I have no idea whether he can do two, three or four hours against Novak. That remains to be seen,” he added.
”To have the physical stuff that it takes, that they have, you’re talking about 1,000 hours of work and two hours in the gym every day for the next two years.
”You have to be willing to go to the gym and do pushups and thousands of hours and it hurts every second.
”Somebody needs to get that message across (to him) very clearly. This is what it takes. Why would you be in the game if you don’t want to be your best? And with his talent, that could probably mean being number one in the world.
“But he needs somebody to explain it to him.”
Editing by John Mehaffey