Welcome return of Tomic the tenacious sends expectations soaring again

In recent months, it has seemed that the only possible upside to Bernard Tomic's undignified stumble through the second half of a year that was equal parts troubling and frustrating was that it would temper Australian Open expectations as a consequence. Not so. Not now. Not since Wednesday night's stirring performance against world No.1 Novak Djokovic.

Yes, the Hopman Cup is an exhibition event, with no ATP rankings points at stake. No, Djokovic was not at his best in the Australian Open warm-up, just a few days after arriving from the Middle East, his true focus still several weeks away. But, certainly, Tomic is showing the promising signs of some harsh lessons learnt and hard work completed. Enough brickbats. Bravo.

Earlier this week, I suggested to Tennis Australia's head of professional tennis, Todd Woodbridge, that perhaps it would help Tomic that, after those miserable Tank Engine performances and subsequent Davis Cup suspension - against a backdrop of headlines for hot spa hi-jinks and fast-car police charges that have subjected the 20-year-old to such public ridicule - the bar would be set lower at Melbourne Park this year.

"Maybe the expectation's low, but the intensity and the attention is bigger than ever, so that's not going to be easy," Woodbridge replied. "But you know what? Bernie loves attention. I've always felt that he plays his best tennis at slams, in the spotlight. And I don't think that will worry him, as long as he feels he's comfortable with his form.

"We know he can play the tennis to rattle people; and it's about competing mentally on the court for the duration of the match to get the result. We've seen it, we know it's possible."

Later that night in Perth, Djokovic saw it, too. Through extra knee bend there was a heftier serve more befitting a player of Tomic's 196-centimetre stature. An improved forehand and superior movement, resulting from intense recent work with experienced Spanish trainer Salvador Sosa. And, even in the friendly, not-playing-for-cattle-stations circumstances, signs of the mental application that has been lacking, and was first apparent during a spirited comeback against Tommy Haas three days earlier.

The defending Australian Open champion commented later on Tomic's innate court sense, touch and tactical awareness for his age, but also that he looked to be stronger physically and more confident. But Djokovic also stressed the importance of achieving consistent success during the season, including on clay. "He has been playing really well in Australia the last few years but he wasn't managing to maintain that level, so I guess it's up to him to see how he can adjust to many different surfaces," said Djokovic, "but he definitely has the game."

And also, still, a lot to prove, but the signs were good. Very good. "This is what you need, and I think this is especially something I needed before the Australian Open," Tomic said. "I'm playing the best tennis I've played in the last few years so I'm really happy with myself, I couldn't have asked for anything more.

"The past year on the court was very difficult for me. I lacked concentration and I'd play really well for a few sets and lose it, so I'm happy I'm not losing my focus and being able to hold service games and really focus when I need to and that's why it's paying off, I think. Absolutely it's very important to have this sort of feeling before leading into a grand slam, and I'm happy I came here. Playing tennis like I'm playing is huge to me and I'm really happy."

So. Let's not overplay this, but accept it as a confidence-building exhibition win at the very start of a long season in which Tomic has some ground and respect to recover. Yet also as a bright beginning – not even in the result, so much, as the attitude and execution.

Indeed, for all that has been written and said about a strangely likeable lad with such prodigious potential, consider the significance of one word that would have seemed almost comically ironic if uttered just a few months ago. In a pre-recorded TV segment, came the following exchange. Q: What word best describes you? Tomic, smiling: "Competitor."

May it be so, Bernie. Welcome to 2013. Where, once again, an expectant nation awaits.

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