Keeping Tabs: Melbourne, January 15

Tuesday, January 15, 2013 /by

MELBOURNE—Over the the past few years here, two Australian men have staged perhaps the most prolonged changing of the guard in tennis history. One night Lleyton Hewitt, now 31, makes his reluctant, defiant exit from Rod Laver Arena; the next night an equally hesitant yet willful Bernard Tomic walks in the door. We’ve reached that stage of the Aussie Open again today. Will it prove a more permanent historic shift this time? Will Tomic finally take the baton from Hewitt? Only the next 12 months will tell us that.

For today, there’s no question of who the local papers consider the future, and present, of Australian tennis. Where sports columns were once filled with far-reaching analyses of Hewitt’s family and class background—his dad’s mullet was a subject of at least one—they’re now all Bernie, all the time. He is, as they say here, the Human Headline.

But if the pundits have agreed that Tomic is the future, they’ve yet to decide on whether they like it—presumably the Australian public is going through the same stages of denial and acceptance as we speak. You can see the continuum of opinion on Tomic from one paper to the next. All of them catch some of the truth of this opaque prodigy.

In the Herald Sun, Leo Schlink is suspicious of Tomic’s elusive nature. He senses phoniness. “The owner of a yellow Ferrari F430 Spider with the number plate “Sincity,” part-time resident of Monte Carlo and sometime resident of the Top 50, Tomic is mostly indefinable. If there is consensus over Tomic, it is this: talented, interesting, unconvincing.”

In The Age, Linda Pearce takes on the role of an exasperated parent. “There’s a lot about Bernard Tomic that screams ‘young man still finding his way,’ and plenty more that says, ‘yes, but really, Bernie?’”

Another Age columnist, Richard Hinds, compares Tomic not to Hewitt but to his talented, much-scorned Davis Cup teammate Mark Philippoussis. 

“Like Philippoussis,” Hinds writes, “both Tomic’s work ethic and appetite for the contest have been questioned...The comparison invites the unspoken question about Tomic—his ethnicity. In a country sadly less at ease with it multicultural makeup than it was 15 years ago, even being asked to tackle the pronunciation of a Balkan surname—it is ‘ic’ not ‘itch’—fuels the prejudice of some. Particularly those who invoke the ugly and divisive term ‘un-Australian’ to chastise Tomic for his lack of Hewitte-esque fight. The presence of Tomic’s strong-willed father John perpetuates the ethnic stereotype—à la Philippoussis and Jelena Dokic.”

Finally, in The Age’s op-ed section, Shane Green takes the opposite tack from Hinds. He’s openly nostalgic for the days of Aussie tennis pride and class. He compares Tomic to another outsider who was brought into that world:

“For me, Evonne Goolagong captured the very essence of Australian sport, and particularly that golden era of tennis upon which the nation built part of its identity: world-beating, with character. As we approach the Australian Open, we hunger for Australian success. The great hope is Bernard Tomic. For all of his raw talent, it has been impossible to warm to him, given his rocky and unpredictable behavior. There is a running debate over what we should expext from our elite sportspeople, and whether they should be role models. So what if Tomic is a bad boy? Does it matter, particularly if he wins? Well, yes, it does. For me, there is an unwritten contract between elite sportspeople and the public that supports them. Their behavior matters. Watch enough junior sport and the trickle down effect is evident.”

I wrote a couple of days ago that tennis occupies a more prominent place in Australian culture than it does in the United States. Green explains why above: The pride that this nation of just 22 million took in dominating an international game for so long, as well as the standards of sportsmanship set by its Harry Hopman-trained stars of the amateur 1950s and 1960s. Unfortunately, Australian tennis stars will always be judged in comparison to those gentlemanly Gods. Most of the professional-era players who have come since—including Hewitt, Philippoussis, Pat Cash, and now Tomic—have been found wanting, either in work ethic or politeness.

So what, after considering all of that, should we make of Tomic, someone who is still just 20 and so far has lived the necessarily sheltered life of a tennis prodigy? Is he likeable? Someone to root for? I enjoy his game, certainly; it’s already one of the most interesting in Aussie tennis history. And I mostly find myself rooting for him. In press conferences, he comes across as, not that surprisingly, a little naive. He’s certainly not humble, but like Roger Federer, his words can appear more arrogant on the page than they sound when he says them. 

On the other hand, I thought he over-celebrated his win in Sydney—his unfolding arms had a narcissistic “star is born” quality, as if he had just won a Grand Slam. After that, anyone watching an old clip of Goolagong celebrating her first Wimbledon win—she put her head down and ran straight to the net—could understand Shane Green’s nostalgia for the old Aussie ways.

Of course, this being the ever unpredictable Tomic, he turned around and gave a champion’s speech of exemplary poise and class, making his father, who left Croatia for Australia when Bernie was three, nearly tear up at the mention of his name. Suddenly Bernie wasn't a disloyal Australian; he was an immigrant’s son, loyal to family first.

As for the off-court incidents with the police, they don’t bother me, except for the way they relate to how he conducts his tennis business. In both cases, Tomic hasn’t seemed to be a rebel, but someone who considers himself a special case, a little oblivious to authority. His first response to his Davis Cup suspension by Pat Rafter in February was to inform Rafter that he wouldn’t be playing for him in April, either. (Again, this being Bernie, he has also responsed by doing exactly what Rafter wanted: Turning his attitude and game around. For now.)

As an American observer, Tomic doesn’t make me recall Rod Laver or Ken Rosewall with fondness. He reminds me of the true model of tennis stars today, and another kid who was told he was a special case, Jimmy Connors. Like Tomic (and Hewitt and Philippoussis and Agassi and the Williams sisters and a hundred others), the blue-collar Connors was an outsider—so much so that “The Outsider” is the tentative title of his upcoming autobiography—in a club sport, driven hard by a parent, in his case his mother. It has been long forgotten, but Jimbo, despite a lot big early talk, wasn’t an instant success either, and he wasn’t always the great fighter we think of him as today. He refused to play Davis Cup and was at odds with all tennis authorities.

But he grew up. It came in fits and starts and wasn’t always pretty, but he grew up, the same public and sometimes painful way that Andre Agassi did after him. For better or worse, that’s what many tennis stars are now. They’re not all upright model citizens, the way Arthur Ashe and Stan Smith and John Newcombe were. That was a time when we watched athletes from some respectful distance. Now, when we know every detail of their lives, they're viewed like flawed children. We get to scold them when they’re young and flashy and drive orange BMWs wherever they want. But if they buckle down and walk straight and fulfill their potential and lose their peroxided wigs and become champions, we see them as reassuring adults, reinforcing our values. 

Personality and maturity aside, winning goes a long way to helping this process along. How would Philippoussis be viewed today if he had won Wimbledon, the way Goolagong did, instead of losing in the final? Probably not as the “waster” (as Hinds puts it) that he is today. As Tomic found out in Sydney, winning will go a long way for him, too. I think he’ll always be seen as a slippery character, one at some remove from most Aussies. But it will be interesting to see whether he can open them up to accepting him more fully in the country's tennis tradition, as a "world beater, with character." This tournament, where Tomic again walks in as the last flawed local hero, Hewitt, walks out, will be the next step.

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