Think Tank

For long stretches over the past few years, Australian Bernard Tomic seemed bent on turning his career into a train wreck. After Tomic appeared to go into the tank in a second-round match with Andy Roddick at the 2012 U.S. Open, a fellow Aussie hung him with the nickname, “Tomic the Tank Engine” (a reference to the wildly popular children’s stories).

Ranking members of the Australian tennis establishment—men like Tony Roche, Pat Rafter, John Newcombe—as well as pundits and diehard fans vacillated between two poles, sometimes simultaneously. They felt a measure of sympathy for the gifted but seemingly confused, self-sabotaging youngster with the abusive, omnipresent father. They frequently experienced a comparable degree of disgust with his antics.

“Bernie” showed flashes of creative genius on the court, but his commitment was questionable, his motivations suspect, and he appeared to be doing his level best to impersonate a horse’s derriere off the court as well as on it. The youngster always seemed to find his way into the papers. The question that hovered on everyone’s lips: What would it take to get Tomic to man up?

The answer, it seems, was right in front of their noses. And it was something nobody could really engineer or bring to pass. What Tomic needed was for a couple of young Australians to pop onto the radar and play well enough for most Aussies to give up the fantasy that Tomic is the second coming of Rod Laver— a hope that only fueled Tomic’s ego. Two kids who could make everyone shrug and ask, “Bernie who?”

The best thing that has happened to Tomic has been the swift, almost overnight emergence of Nick Kyrgios and Thanasi Kokkinakis as potential impact players. By birthright, they are also Tomic’s rivals to the bragging rights to Australia. It may be the simplest of all forms of motivation.

It takes a lot to hurt a talented young guy with a whopping sense of entitlement, but Tomic certainly has been stung. At 22, he’s the oldest player in this gifted trio—and of sufficient age and seasoning to read the handwriting on the wall. Could anyone blame him for fidgeting? He’s also the Aussie youth who’s wasted the most time, and now has the most to prove, and the most to lose.

That was but one set of reasons why Tomic’s recent clash with Kokkinakis at Indian Wells loomed with such significance and motivated him to play with uncharacteristic ferocity and determination. Tomic, yelling and fist pumping all the way, won that fourth-round match in three tough sets. His comments afterward carried an interesting undercurrent of self-pity, as well a familiar vein of defiance.

“Obviously, playing someone younger is not easy,” Tomic told reporters. “There were a lot of expectations tonight. Was not easy out there. Conditions were suiting him. He was going for it and playing with nothing to lose. Looking back to the way I was playing when I was 18, 19, I was playing like that. . .I was happy I won. You know, I didn’t play the way I should have maybe in that second to get up, but he was playing good.”

People, including their fellow players, have noticed how Kyrgios and Kokkanikis have Tomic rattled.

“He’s getting mentally more confident, more comfortable on the court,” Novak Djokovic said of Tomic before a quarterfinal showdown at Indian Wells (a match that never happened because a bad back and aching wisdom tooth caused Tomic to issue a walkover). “He has started to believe even more (in himself). Perhaps also the success of Kokkinakis and [Nick] Kyrgios motivated him to really get serious and work. The talent is there, the touch is there, he’s got a (tough) game.”

The game Tomic is inflicting on his opponents is a maddening one; if Djokovic runs you into exhaustion, Rafael Nadal bludgeons you into senselessness, and Roger Federer simply makes you go blind with his dazzling versatility, Tomic at his best uses razor sharp if by no means overpowering weapons to inflict so many small wounds his opponent slowly bleeds to death.

Although he’s a long and lean 6’5” with plenty of elasticity, Tomic relies far less on power than feel and improvisation. He’s expert at teasing errors out of opponents eager to jump on his slow-moving shots. His game is odd, almost eccentric, which is one of the reasons he attracted so much attention from such a young age. His style is more interesting than pretty, but on too many occasions Tomic’s indifference or foul mood has made his tennis appear simply ugly.

Tomic’s struggle with motivation has been career-defining. He isn’t overly imbued with what commonly passes for fighting spirit. He first signaled to the world at large that he might be a head case, or simply a troublesome character, in 2007. He was 15 at the time, “competing” in the French Open juniors. He put forth so poor an effort in a second-round loss at Roland Garros that furious Tennis Australia officials cut off his funding. He was obliged to return home and he was unable to return to play at Wimbledon.

Later, in 2009, Tomic also was suspended by the ITF for walking off the court in Perth during a Futures tournament match. Still later that year, he infuriated members of Aussie icon Lleyton Hewitt’s camp by blowing off a practice session because he felt the role model “wasn’t good enough.” And did you hear about the time Tomic was busted for illegally and recklessly driving his bright orange BMW M3 through the Gold Coast byways? Stopped three times in the same day, he uttered those six magical words that define celebrity noxiousness: “Do you know who I am?”

But the worst of it, and perhaps the only reason some apologists continued to support Tomic and plead for understanding, was Bernie’s relationship with his abusive father and coach, John. At the Miami Masters in 2012, Bernie asked the chair umpire to remove John—his own father—from the stadium. Bernie claimed John was “irritating” and distracting him.

Things went from bad to worse by May of 2013, at which time John Tomic attacked Bernie’s hitting partner, Thomas Drouet, leaving the Frenchman with stitches in a cut over an eye and a broken nose. During the subsequent news cycle, Drouet said that he had witnessed John Tomic striking his son during a practice session in Monte Carlo. As a result, John Tomic was then banned from ATP and ITF events for a year.

All the while, Tomic’s rankings fluctuated, sometimes wildly. He made his big breakthrough at Wimbledon in 2011, and by November of that year his ranking had climbed to No. 27. Since then, he’s been as low as No. 124 and as high as his present No. 29.

Tomic told reporters at Indian Wells that he’s fitter than ever but humbly added that he “still has a long way to go.” Since he suddenly found religion, Tomic enthusiastically declared that he still has “a lot of areas that I can work on.”

A skeptic might be moved to ask, “Can this last?”

In that regard, the Davis Cup situation may be germane. Australian fans and pundits hold the competition in the highest regard; playing in it is a national obligation. Hewitt, Rafter, and other Aussie Davis Cup stalwarts have worked hard to instill the trademark, gung-ho Australian Davis Cup spirit in Tomic. All three young men (Kyrgios, Kokkinakis, Tomic) will be under a lot of pressure to behave like true-blue Aussies.

“Obviously we have good futures, all of us,” Kokkinakis said at Indian Wells. “We have definitely a real positive Davis Cup team to build around in the future. Yeah, we are all real different people. We are very different, I would say, all of us, and we will keep working hard and see how good we can be.”

The operative word in Kokkinakis’ comments is “different.” Tomic has a long history as a self-absorbed lone wolf; it will be interesting to see how he handles those differences, especially if his young friends and rivals make better use of their next two or three years than Tomic did with last four or five.

Right now, Tomic is saying all the right things.

“You work so hard being a tennis player and wanting to achieve a lot of things, and I realized in the last sort of year that I have to use these next six, seven years and achieve as much as I can. I feel very good on court and I feel like I can match these guys (Djokovic et al), but maybe at times I wasn’t putting in the right concentration. Now this year has been amazing for me, and I’m going to keep going.”

And even if Tomic is seized by a desire to let it all go, like he’s often done in the past, he now has two other reasons not to chuck it all and go hang around the nightclubs of Gold Coast. I think he knows as well as we do what those two reasons are.

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