Australia's Bernard Tomic reacts against Germany's Mischa Zverev during their men's singles first round match on the second day of the 2017 Wimbledon Championships. Photograph: (AFP)
Around the time when most millennials were dealing with adolescent acne and teenage crushes, one of their own, Bernard Tomic was being hailed as Australian tennis’ next big thing. By 2006, he was being managed by IMG and had a sponsorship deal with Nike. He was 13 at this time. The praise for his unorthodox style of playing was coming in thick and fast, from a variety of corners.
The attention Tomic was receiving was not unfounded. He had three Orange Bowl titles under his belt by 2007. In 2010, he became the youngest ever winner of the Australian Open’s Junior Boy’s title in the Open Era. The following year he won the US Open junior boy’s title. In 2011, by the time he became the youngest player to reach the quarter-finals of Wimbledon since Boris Becker in 1986, the crown of Australian tennis’ heir apparent had been placed securely on young Tomic’s head.
Since then Tomic has toyed with that crown. Tossing it aside on occasion, re-adorning his pate with it on others. Off the court, Tomic’s capers have been spectacular and the sort of fodder that keeps tabloids in business.
Off the court, Tomic’s capers have been spectacular and the sort of fodder that keeps tabloids in business.
In January 2012, the then 19-year-old found himself in august company in the fourth round of the Australian Open: he was up against none other than Roger Federer. But all the cheering from the home crowd and overall media frenzy could do little for Tomic. He went down in straight sets to Federer, with talk of the Aussie not putting up enough of a fight peppering the match and its analysis. Only days after that loss, Tomic was back in the news; his defeat in three sets mirrored in the form of speeding tickets in triple, all handed out in the span of a few glorious hours for careening down a Gold Coast freeway.
Later in 2012, police in the Gold Coast had to be called in to break up a punching fest between Tomic and another naked-from-the-waist-up pal at a spa.
Unfortunately for Tomic, there have been no remarkable acts of redemption on court for his colourful life off it. Take 2012 for instance, the year of the capers above. Tomic was handed a dismal 6-3, 6-4, 6-0 loss at the second round of the US Open by Andy Roddick. So lacklustre was Tomic’s performance, that it prompted tennis great John McEnroe to accuse the Australian of tanking.
Four years later, at the 2016 Madrid Open, Tomic chose to hold his racquet by the strings when facing match point against Fabio Fognini in the second round. The moniker “Tomic the Tank Engine” started making more and more sense.
Since turning pro in 2008, Tomic has made it to the quarter-finals of a grand slam only once (Wimbledon 2011) and has made it to the fourth round on five other occasions. He has three ATP singles titles to his credit. However, the 24-year-old has: had multiple run-ins with the law, seen his rankings yo-yo significantly, been involved in an ugly public rift with Australia Davis Cup captain and former World no. 1 Patrick Rafter and, among other things, taken himself out of the Rio 2016 Olympics citing a very busy schedule.
Tomic achieved a career-high standing of 17 in January last year but has slipped to 59th as of the latest rankings. His year-to-date win-loss record stands at 9-14, and he hasn’t won a tour title since 2015. At Grand Slams this year, he made a third round exit at Melbourne Park following up with first round defeats at the French Open and, now, at Wimbledon.
Yesterday’s loss stood out for more reasons than one. Mischa Zverev, the German who decimated Tomic in straight sets in their first round encounter, was the very same man the Australian saw off 6-3, 6-2 in the fourth round of last week’s Eastbourne International. However, Tomic’s insipid performance Wednesday made Eastbourne appear a distant memory.
What’s worse, Tomic appeared nonchalant in the post-match media interaction, putting his performance down to boredom. Swivelling in his chair, he went so far as to say the medical time out he took mid-way through the match was more to do with mental issues than a sore back. If that wasn’t enough to muddle the soup he was swimming in, he threw in another ingredient for good measure: saying he couldn’t care less if he made the fourth round of the US Open or lost in the first round.
Ironically, despite his jaw-dropping confession about how he felt about playing at the sport’s most hallowed ground, Tomic will walk away with a neat 45,000 USD for just making it to the grass courts of Wimbledon. When asked if he’d return the prize money in wake of his confessed boredom, Tomic shot back, asking if the same question would be posed to Roger Federer for his career earnings. The comparison seems unhinged. Thirty-five-year-old Federer, who won a record 18th Grand Slam singles title at this year’s Australian Open (the most ever in men’s tennis by a long shot) has been celebrated not just for his performance on tour but for his mental and physical dedication to the sport, that have been the hallmarks of his longevity.
Not surprisingly, the daggers are out for Tomic. Most have dismissed him as a disappointment, others have hauled him over the coals for being disrespectful to the sport. What’s perhaps gotten lost in all the vitriol is the tragedy of Tomic’s truth; that as much as he seems lost at tennis, his comments make him seem lost in life.
In the meantime, Tomic’s temperament, his tenuous relationship with his father and coach John (a story that deserves its very own analysis) and his failure to come good on his own dreams as a tennis player have relegated him to a space of comic relief in a serious sport. All the while, his contemporary Nick Kyrgios has continued to make forays into the upper echelons of competition. Kyrgios may have had his own time in the bad-boy spotlight, yet he’s managed to keep his train on the tracks and backed his brash behaviour with impressive results.
With Tomic, the novelty has worn off, his run-ins seem increasingly passé, his vapid performances seem enough to prompt epigraphs on his career or at the very least as trends on social media.
Ironically, the waning interest in his exploits might be his redemption: that when he does execute a turnaround (and at just 24 there’s time and more for that) as minute as a change-in-course it may be, it will be a more-than-welcome break from the usual antics.