The largest of the Melbourne Park courts used for qualifying on Tuesday hosted two former top 20 players. One-time world No.5 Eugenie Bouchard fought through the nausea caused by the smoky haze and heavy air, persisted well beyond a lengthy medical time-out and past a debilitated opponent forced to serve underarm, eventually winning in three sets and almost three hours.
Next was Bernard Tomic.
Qualifying does not discriminate. Without the wildcard life raft, the rising, the treading-water and those sinking are – like Kipling’s imposters –treated just the same.
At Australian Open level, Tomic has attempted to qualify three times in the past dozen years – as a prodigiously talented 15-year-old in 2008, as a boastful loser supposedly counting his millions a decade later, and this time as the world No.183 hampered by a hand injury suffered mid-year.
Tomic lost 7-6 (4), 6-3 to American seventh seed and world No.107 Denis Kudla in 68 hot and humid minutes before a smattering of spectators on court No.2.
When asked later about being described as the forgotten man of Australian tennis, the 27-year-old replied: 'Ah, I’m forgotten, huh?'"
Well … ?
A smile. “So much to forget about me.’’
Or so much to wonder. Regret, perhaps. Including for those of us who’d gathered a few days before Christmas in 2009 for the final of the AO wildcard playoff.
The smooth-stroking US Open junior champion lost after holding match points against compatriot Nick Lindahl (banned in 2017 for seven years for match-fixing. That, surely, is true regret).
An admiring crowd on that sunny afternoon was both aware of Tomic’s boundless potential and hungry for a slam-winning successor to Lleyton Hewitt, Pat Rafter et al. What is truly hard to forget, though, is the optimism; the idea that Australia’s next champion had possibly been found.
Back to Tuesday. The former world No.17 – and 2011 Wimbledon quarter-finalist, as an 18-year-old, yes, qualifier – insisted there was no issue getting motivated for the non-glamour pre-rounds of his home major.
Yet it involved a questionable effort after a tight first set, unimpressed spectators muttering about his commitment as they departed.
Tomic did not blame the diabolical air quality that shrouded the city, despite calling for the trainer and an inhaler early in the second set.
It was more about the ligaments in his left hand he injured mid-year, Tomic said, and thus a limited preparation. His previous match was in Stockholm in October.
“I didn’t train that much – I only practised about two weeks, 10 days, still been struggling with my hand,’’ Tomic said. “But he’s playing well. He’s (around) 100 in the world … so (had my) chance first set, but I just didn’t really get into the rhythm. Didn’t play any matches, is all I can say.
I’m starting a new year so hopefully this year I can start turning it around. Hopefully that (hand) gets better for me, because that’s been bothering me for the last five months.
"I’ve just gotta fix this because this is bothering me and I need a backhand to play. It’s my most important shot.’’
Tomic apparently suffered the injury playing basketball – which all sounds rather Kyrgios-sian. And while we’d all prefer something more De Minaurian, in terms of attitude and commitment, those struggling for breath for bushfire reasons are advised not to be holding theirs.
“I really haven’t been professional that first month to go get scanned,’’ said Tomic, who had retired in his Atlanta quarter-final against De Minaur as a result of the problem that has apparently affected him ever since.
“When I started playing in Asia it still was bothering me. I was like ‘Come on, it didn’t go away’ and then I was pulling out of every tournament in Asia and I was upset at myself, and only really played Shanghai and Stockholm, so it’s unlucky.
"They said to me, all the physios, 'This is gonna go away', but it hasn’t. I’m just giving it time to heal … I can’t really hit backhands – I can, but I’m hitting with pain.’’
Yet nor is intensity the famously laconic Tomic’s calling card, and the young fan who souvenired the Queenslander’s cap afterwards had been one of a small front-row group who had urged him on, chatted over the fence after a change-of-ends in which he forgot he was due to serve, asked how he was feeling, then invited him back to their place afterwards. “All right,” was the Tomic reply.
Ah, the focus.
His previous appearance at Melbourne Park was after a first round loss last year to Marin Cilic. In a small interview room, he burned any future wildcard bridges by torching Hewitt, the Davis Cup captain, during an outburst that held some kernels of truth but from which a major controversy sprouted.
A famously brief reality TV trip to the jungle followed. Bernie as celebrity? Depends on the definition. Get him outta there?
Just like this year’s Australian Open, whatever else it was, it was also fast.
Linda Pearce has covered more than 50 grand slam tournaments, including 31 Australian Opens, plus Davis Cup finals and Olympic Games. She will be heading The New Daily’s Australian Open coverage over the next three weeks.