Ball kids at the OZ Open

Ball kids at the OZ Open

MELBOURNE – It was inevitable.  After only the sixth day the last Australian bodies were carted away, and the once-proud Aussies were once again shut out of their own championship.

This is hardly news.  Chris O’Neill, 1978, and Mark Edmondson, 1976, are the most recent home-grown winners of the Australian Open, and Lleyton Hewitt, 2005, the last finalist.  But record crowds (51,276 on Saturday), didn’t seem bothered by domestic failure and the absence of someone capable of emulating the feats of victorious old boys such as Laver, Hoad, Rosewall, Emerson, Newcombe.  Or Court and Goolagong.

But during the farewell Saturday there was hope, too, in the encouraging presence of a kid: Childe Bernard, 18, who kept giving fits to none other than Rafa Nadal.

“I had hoped Bernard might post a losing score of, say, 6-3, 6-3, 6-3,” said Hall of Famer John Newcombe, former Australian Davis Cup captain.  “That would have been fine.  But look what he did.” It was a defeat all right, but 6-2, 7-5, 6-3, during which prodigy Bernard Tomic led 4-0 in the middle set.  That’s when Nadal had to reach deeply to save the set.

Spider Camera

Spider Camera

“I did not play well,” said Senor No. 1. “Is more important to win matches when you are not playing well.”  But he was filled with praise for the 6-foot-5 inch kid: “Very difficult to play against.  His style is not easy to play.  He’s good, no?  And he will be better.”

Tomic, serving 11 aces, moved the ball deceptively.  He was like a difficult book – “Moby Dick,” maybe – and Nadal was having a whale of a tough time reading the variety of spins, speeds and angles.

The kid and his coach-father, John Tomic, have been controversial figures in Australia, often receiving negative reviews.  But he’s been all smiles during a positive Open, and exhulted in his fine performance.

“I played a wonderful match.  I’m hitting the ball good. The experience was great.  Physically-wise, I have a lot to improve,” No. 199 Tomic said.  “Rafa wears you down, physically, mentally.  He’s so strong and quick.  After he told me, ‘Very good.  Keep working hard all the time.’  Very nice to get that advice from a true champion. Now my goal for the year is to make the top hundred.“

New Fountain this year ....

New Fountain this year ….

If Tomic was the evening’s revelation, the much better known Aussie, No. 5 Sam Stosur was it’s painful disappointment. As the 2010 French Open finalist, Stosur was the one native who had a legitimate title shot, a chance to do some damage in the second week.

But No. 25 Petra Kvitova, a 6-foot Czech lefty checked her out, 7-6 (7-5), 6-3, even though Sam led 3-0 and 5-3 in the tie-breaker.  I was impressed by Kvitova when she made the Wimbledon semis last year unseeded, and gave champ Serena a good fight.  Her flat groundies hummed along the lines, unfortunately for Sam, who, surprisingly timid, missed numerous opportunities to advance to the net.  I give Petra a shot at the title.

But for the hosting Aussies the party’s over.

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