Whether Bernard Tomic was unwanted or unavailable for ‘s Davis Cup quarter-final against the US this week is a moot point amid the broader crisis threatening the former world No.17. Tomic has not won a match since January, and just two of his past 10, the manner of the defeats as concerning as the number. A career that has been on the decline for six months is on the precipice of a nasty freefall.
For every small step forward Nick Kyrgios appears to be taking, his erstwhile teammate continues to stumble half-heartedly in the opposite direction. Indeed, the question being pondered is one that has been regularly asked of Kyrgios: does he even want to play tennis? To quote one insider, Tomic’s effort, even by his own standards, has been “terrible” since a first-round failure at last year’s US Open.
Clearly, the Tomic story is a complex one, with enough family dramas to fill a daytime soapie script. He was introduced to the game as a seven-year-old by his father, John, then pushed, directed and dominated through his successful teenage years that culminated with a Wimbledon quarter-final from qualifying in 2011. Now, at 24, a sportsman who makes no secret of his dollar-driven motivation boasts official prizemoney of more than $6 million, a privileged history – albeit rapidly dwindling – of lucrative sponsorships and tournament guarantees, and a garage of luxury cars.
Yet if the drive needs to come from within a natural talent known more for his devotion to nightclubs than the daily training grind, how willing is he to embrace the single-mindedness required to do what’s required? Or, alternatively, to play amateur psychologist, how powerful is his desire to rebel?
“He’s been driven by his father blindly, for years and years and years, and now’s his time of questioning it,” suggests one source, noting Tomic senior’s loosened grip on the reins over the past two years, despite still remaining highly invested and involved. “And with that autonomy maybe it’s not so obvious that’s all there is and it’s what he wants.”
The manifestations are obvious; so too the consequences. “You can’t hide from not doing the work, for not having the right application and discipline, for not having done the work,” says coach and commentator Roger Rasheed of the player described by Jim Courier as the least athletic in the men’s top 100. “Not at this level. It’s OK when you’re younger; you’ll have a few spikes.
“There’s just a massive culture shift that needs to take place in Bernie’s world, because the culture around him is toxic. There’s nothing that delivers him to the right pathway, and they’ve all allowed that to continue. But he’s the main one because at some point you’ve got to put your hand up and own your space as a person. He’s not 15 any more. He’s been in the game a long time and he’s got to step up and say ‘do I want to make a significant contribution to my tennis career?’, but also look at what you are doing off the court.”
The tipping point, one credible theory goes, was the US Open, Tomic having spent the lead-up working with his Davis Cup captain and mentor Lleyton Hewitt. Yes, really working. Hard, even. Yet when the expectation of instant success was instead followed by a dispiriting four-set loss to 72nd-ranked Damir Dzumhur, and despite the reality that rewards for a demanding training block are rarely immediate, it was apparently enough to convince him it was all pointless. “So he went back back to relying on ability, and partying,” says one insider, “when a good run could have changed everything around.”
Tomic has been drifting in and – mostly – out of matches pretty much ever since, barely disguising his keenness to see the back of the Asian swing, then enjoying his extended off-season to the point where he turned up out of shape and was soon out of puff when the season started in Brisbane. During the n Open, the worried word was that the 27th seed would be lucky to be in the top 50 by the end of 2017. On Monday, the well-known rankings obsessive will have dropped to 43rd.
Too much lower and it starts to get tricky, for no longer is there direct entry to Masters 1000 main draws, and Tomic is not the type to thrive in qualifying. That, in turn, leads to greater reliance on results in the grand slams – and thus best-of-five matches, sometimes in heat far more testing than that which supposedly nobbled the defending finalist recently in Acapulco. Tomic is known to gasp/grunt/retire earlier than most, encouraging his opponents to do little more than to keep the ball in and keep Tomic running after it. Or, well, not.
His Davis Cup replacement, gritty world No. 79 Jordan Thompson, typifies the hungry, committed pack in pursuit. To the question of whether Tomic would do even half the work of a Thompson, the expert estimate came in at closer to 25 per cent. Should that not change – along, perhaps, with a mates-based entourage that does not include a regular coach – it may not matter what ambitions and abilities Tomic still harbours, for the tour will effectively retire him first.
As it is, having cited a back injury for his Miami Open withdrawal, the Queenslander is about to enter his individual torture chamber that is the claycourt season, and then, on grass, will be under immense pressure to defend his fourth-round Wimbledon points from 2016. The rankings system only gives players 12 months grace, and Tomic has already wasted more than half.
So if opinion is divided on whether all this really is a career-threatening slump, there is nevertheless furious agreement about the steep gradient of a potentially very slippery slope. Still, there is also concern for the likable n’s well-being and non-tennis welfare. Some would not be surprised if, before too long, he is gone from the game altogether. And what then?
“He’s in a dangerous place as a person,” says Rasheed. “The tour’s keeping him safe, in my opinion. I just fear that because the tour gives him a week-to-week structure, and it’s the only structure he’s got.
“So if you take the tour out and say ‘you’re not playing for six months’, what does he do? There’s no personal disciplines … you can get into bad habits with bad people and you sort of spiral into a bad place, and we see that a lot with sports people, but I just think he’s a classic candidate for that and it’s very obvious that the tour keeps him in a safe place.”
As for how much longer, consider Davis Cup. It was once the happy haven his fine representative record reflects, and yet even if Tomic was still willing, it seems he is no longer welcome. Not like this. Note Hewitt’s comments at Melbourne Park this week: “Right at the moment he’s not in the right space to go out there and play Davis Cup. It’s a tough situation for him, and it’s only hard work that’s gonna get him out of it.”