19 January 2017 | Tennis Australia

On paper, it was a total mismatch. The 24-year-old Aussie, seeded for another year, has a fine history of deep runs at the Australian Open and appearances on premier show courts. His opponent, 12 years his senior, is ranked outside the top 100 and has only a fraction of the big-match experience of his prodigious young opponent.

Fans filing into Margaret Court Arena no doubt anticipated a tidy Tomic win, which would have sent another local through to the third round at Melbourne Park after Ash Barty, playing the match before on the same court, had sailed past Shelby Rogers.

Instead, what fans got – rather, the ones who stuck it out as the match approached midnight – was a near three-and-a-half hour slugfest that had many of the hallmarks of an Australian Open late-night classic.

Tomic won, 7-5 7-6(4) 4-6 7-6(5). And he was made to work incredibly hard for it.

Hearty rounds of applause are most commonly reserved for the winner as they exit the court, and especially if they’re a home-grown product. Yet the ovation Estrella Burgos received as he departed brought the Dominican veteran to tears.

“He’s a good friend of mine. We played also in the semis of Bogota where I won my second title. We played 6-7, 7-6, 7-6,” Tomic recalled.

“He’s an amazing player. I spent time with him playing tournaments. Obviously from the Dominican Republic, a small country. But he’s doing amazing for his country.”

Estrella Burgos gives away 23cm in height to Tomic, which, in addition to the deficit in his results at the top level, meant this battle had a David-and-Goliath feel. In fact, basically everything about the two men was in stark contrast.

Tomic, with his soft hands, flat shots and effortless feel, has always been more suited to a quicker court. Estrella Burgos, with his relentless, slugging physicality, was built for slow-court tennis.

That contrast meshed beautifully in the second round on Monday night.

Games went on serve predictably during the first set until Estrella Burgos – throwing his bodyweight into every shot and accompanying them with guttural grunts – broke in the ninth game to earn a shot at serving for the first set. Tomic promptly broke back to love, part of a three-game run that saw him take a one-set lead.

Tomic also held the edge in the second set purely because of his ability to win the most valuable points at the business end, helped by a serve he feels is getting back to its best. But the one point that stuck out was the rally to close the seventh game – Tomic won a thrilling point to hold for 4-3, which Estrella Burgos applauded. The two men then bumped fists over the net in a light-hearted, respectful moment.

What happened next, Tomic described as “a pity” in his post-match on-court interview. After the third set had progressed neck-and-neck, Tomic’s level dipped in the 10th game, during which he sprayed errors and a double fault. With set point, Estrella Burgos scrambled to produce a highlight reel-worthy point, eventually forcing a Tomic error at net and sending the crowd into raptures.

“I think Estrella used the crowd. He was playing amazing. I felt happy for him. I enjoyed he was playing well,” Tomic said.
“I was kind of happy he was going in the moment in one way, and I was kind of sad. Fourth set, oh, no.”
Tomic had a chance to completely snuff out the momentum when he went up 0-40 in the first game of the fourth on Estrella Burgos’ serve. But he couldn’t convert.

Eventually mired in another tiebreak, Tomic let slip a 2-0 lead and fluffed an overhead into the net to trail 3-4. But two points later, when Estrella Burgos did exactly the same thing, the Aussie’s spirits lifted. Delivering an unreturnable serve to reach match point, he outlasted the veteran in a sapping rally to clinch it.

Next for Tomic is Dan Evans. It’s a match-up against an almost identical player to Estrella Burgos – short in height, limited in Grand Slam credentials and with a good relationship to the Aussie.

Fans will no doubt be more prepared for what could be another classic.