A very, very long feature article on Bernard in this week's The Weekend Australian Magazine but an excellent read:
JUST don't get Bernard Tomic started about cars. Not that car; any car. As he warns from the outset, once he gets on a roll he can talk the wheels off a Range Rover.
He is hardly the first young bloke to develop an automotive obsession but the thing that sets Tomic apart is that at just 19, he can afford the latest marque from any showroom floor. The only thing stopping him is his job. "It is too tough for a tennis player," he explains. "You don't have time - you are travelling and the tour is so long. You are never there. It is just a waste. One day in the future, hopefully, I will have a few."
Tomic runs through the models he likes, the ones he doesn't and the one that really turns his crank; his latest dream car. The bright orange Beamer that caused so much consternation with the Gold Coast police last summer has disappeared both from the Tomic family garage and Bernard's thinking. Tomic now spends as much time in his Monte Carlo apartment as his parents' house and his new surrounds have exposed him to another level of four-wheel indulgence. "Right now, I would love to have ... it would have to be a good Rolls-Royce convertible," he says. For the hottest young player in world tennis it seems a little fogeyish, the idea of him behind the wheel of something so stately, so staid. But as Tomic says, his tastes have matured since he was a suburban kid with Ferrari fantasies. In his own way, it sounds like Bernard Tomic is growing up. But enough about cars.
Tomic shifts to get comfortable in a chair in the players' lounge in Madrid's Caja Magica tennis venue, a gigantic, galvanised steel cube that rises incongruously from the flat expanses of the city's southern boondocks. He's here for the Madrid Masters, one of the big clay court tournaments leading into the French Open. For the first time, Tomic has signed up for a full European season on his least favoured surface. It is a six-week slog that takes him from Monte Carlo to Barcelona, Munich, Madrid, Rome and Paris before he knocks the brick dust from his shoes and returns to Wimbledon, where last year he reached the quarter-finals - becoming the youngest player to make the last eight since Boris Becker retained his title in 1986.
Tomic isn't scheduled to play a match today. Instead, he has spent an hour or so on a practice court and as much time stretching and working in the gym. He practises against Ivan Navarro, a thick-legged Spaniard who earns his living mostly on the doubles tour. As he torments Navarro for a set, Tomic's London-based manager, Fraser Wright, points out the improvements since January, when we watched Tomic's run through the Australian Open: stronger legs delivering more power in the serve, a more muscled right arm capable of cracking a bigger forehand. Tomic is more man than boy now, his official height 193cm, his shoulders broadening and his voice deep. Yet he is still at heart a kid playing his favourite game. When Navarro queries whether a serve was in or out, Tomic shrugs his shoulders. "Who cares?" he says with a grin. "I'll ace you with this one ... "
Tomic's father and coach, John, has returned to the Gold Coast for a few days so Wright, a former player and coach, is in charge of the details; ensuring Tomic practises and eats the right food at the right time, that he keeps up his gym work and gets enough sleep. After a massage and a meal - one of four he'll sit down to for the day - Tomic is at ease, his loose limbs wrapped in the folds of a bright blue tracksuit. As players come and go from the lounge he talks expansively about family and tennis. About being the family business.
The official Tomic story starts with a made-for-TV moment where a seven-year-old goes to a garage sale with 50 cents in his pocket and buys his first tennis racquet. This is the story Tomic will get asked about on breakfast television in the UK if he wins Wimbledon, or by US talk-show hosts if he wins at Flushing Meadows. The more complicated version begins with a migrant family discovering their son has a rare talent. It is a talent that promises all of them a life beyond what could ever be provided by dad John Tomic driving taxis, and mum Ady working as a biomedical scientist. Coaching Bernard will soon become John's full-time job, while Ady will study and work to tie things over until their son makes it big. Tomic's younger sister Sara, now an emerging tennis player in her own right, will get used to Bernard and her father being away for weeks overseas. The one thing that isn't discussed is what happens if Bernard doesn't make it.
"She would massage me after I played tennis," Tomic says of his mother, who didn't speak a word of English when she arrived in Australia in 1996 with John and three-year-old Bernard from Germany (where John and Ady had settled after leaving Croatia). "She would sleep during the day and study at night and work. My father was a taxi driver and then he stopped and was helping me and playing tennis with me and coaching me. That is where it all started. I can only dream of the things I can have one day after my career. It is funny how you start from nothing, to be like one of the guys now at the top who can have almost anything in the world. That is when you make it in life; when you start from something not as big and you make it."
There was little money to spare in those early days on the Gold Coast but John Tomic had a talent for making a dollar stretch. If Bernard's smartest purchase was a second-hand racquet, John's was a $100 used photocopier, with which he made duplicates of every book about tennis, coaching and sport he could find at public libraries from the Gold Coast to Brisbane. If you visit the Tomic household you can still see the copied books neatly shelved and sorted according to information about forehands, backhands and broader coaching philosophies. Most have highlighted passages and dog-eared pages. "We didn't have enough money to buy books," says John. "But if I want to go to Everest, I have to ask somebody what is the best way."
What no one can explain is why, within weeks of picking up his first racquet, Bernard Tomic was able to walk into a local tournament on the Gold Coast and beat older kids, some of whom had been coached for several years. As he kept on beating them, up and down the Gold Coast and then across Queensland, it was a question that started to tug at the tempers of other kids and their parents and coaches. Tomic didn't hit as hard as other players. He didn't bombard them with his serve or overpower them with his forehand. Yet he was a nightmare to play against. By the age of 11, he had beaten the best Queensland and Australia had to offer and travelled to Florida, where he won the first of an unprecedented three Orange Bowl titles, a tournament for the world's most precocious talent. By 13, he had sponsors to his name and a contract with the International Management Group. Shortly after his 15th birthday, he became the youngest player in history to win the Australian Open boys' singles title. By 16 Tomic had leapt into full view, pictured in an airborne pose in ESPN magazine's "Next" edition, a perennial dedicated to picking tomorrow's sports stars. Beneath the picture he is quoted in Schwarzenegger deadpan: "I like playing older guys. They have more to lose."
All the while, John Tomic was firmly in charge; overseeing the development of Tomic's game, deciding when and where he would play, setting goals, seeking advice. He arranged with the principal at The Southport School for his son to finish classes early so he could get to practice. He'd pick Bernard up and make sure he ate something on the short drive between school and the courts. The conversation was not what the youngster had learnt that day, but what he needed to learn that afternoon. After practice, John Tomic would devour the latest books he'd copied until the early hours of the morning. In one of those books he came across a quote from Henry Ford that has stayed with him: "The only real security that a man will have in this world is a reserve of knowledge, experience and ability."
"It has been a whole ride for me, but why I have gotten to where I am today is definitely because of my dad," says Bernard. "He was there from the start to help me. I wouldn't even be playing tennis if he didn't help me. He would wake me up to play and train and travel. A lot of players stop at a young age. My dad was very strict. He is a great guy and a great father but he is a very disciplined guy. That is the way it should be, I think. You don't get to the top if you are easy and relaxed and everything is all right."
No one could accuse John Tomic of being an easy man. Craig Tiley remembers the first time he spoke to him. It was seven years ago and Tiley had just been appointed director of player development at Tennis Australia. The conversation was over the phone and difficult. Bernard, at age 12, was playing overseas on a Tennis Australia-funded trip and John Tomic was travelling with him. Tiley can't recall what John had said or done, only that he had behaved badly enough to warrant the phone call. It wouldn't be the last time. Tiley told him that he could no longer stay with Bernard and that he had to go home immediately, at his own expense. Tiley then booked a flight from Melbourne to the Gold Coast to meet the man who had already developed a fearsome reputation within the corridors of Tennis Australia.
Now Tennis Australia's director of tennis, Tiley is fresh from a boardroom meeting when he sits down with The Weekend Australian Magazine to talk Tomic. Tennis Australia is an organisation with grand ambitions, not the least of which is a $366 million redevelopment of the Melbourne Park precinct which each year for the two weeks of the Australian Open becomes the centre of world tennis and the national sporting psyche. As for what Australian tennis might achieve on the court - winning slams, the Davis Cup - no player, not even reigning US Open champion Sam Stosur, is as central to the plan as Tomic. This is why, whenever John Tomic calls or sends a text message at 3am from some tournament somewhere in the world, Tiley will always take it.
"The first thing he always asks is, 'How's your family?'" Tiley says. "Then if we have a crap thing to deal with we get that part of the conversation out of the way and then we go right to it. Other parents I deal with are just rude. They just pick up the phone and start screaming down the line. John screams, but it is just his passion and desire to have success.
"I have never supported John's behaviour or Bernard's behaviour when it is not satisfactory and he has been disciplined. He has a track history of being disciplined. However, they have always responded, always apologised when they were supposed to. Remember, Bernard is looked at more critically than anyone else. One, because he is now our best player; two, because he is one of the best young players in the world; and three, because he loves the limelight. That is why he is so good. He is just enthralled by that. John is more about getting the business done, getting results. I think in many cases there has been a misunderstanding. A misunderstanding of John, a misunderstanding of Bernard and a misunderstanding of how they go about their business."
The essential rule to understanding Team Tomic is this: John Tomic will not accept any situation where he believes Bernard is not being given his due. He says the reason he was sent home from that overseas trip is that he suspected the Tennis Australia coach in charge was favouring two kids at Bernard's expense - and he let his feelings be known. He is neither apologetic nor embarrassed about it. "When you see something that doesn't work for your kid you have to react. You have to say, 'Look, I am not happy with this.'"
John Tomic, who still speaks in thick Balkan tones, says there are times when he isn't well understood by Australia's predominantly anglo tennis officialdom. "If I am talking a little bit loudly and talking with my hands, people think I am abusing somebody. That is not true. This is my culture. It is natural." But there is one thing about him that should be clear by now: he says what he thinks. "There are people who sometimes don't like what I say because I say always what I feel and I don't have nothing in the pocket that I hide. That is me. It is hard to change your heart."
This is why, five months on, his still finds his voice rising in anger when asked about the events of last summer, when Bernard was pulled over three times in an afternoon by Queensland Police for allegedly breaching the conditions of the restricted licence he had been granted to drive his high-powered BMW M3, a car normally off limits to drivers of his age. It was the last week of January and the sweat had barely dried on Tomic from his star turn at the Australian Open. Where many Australians were previously unsure what to make of Tomic, this was the tournament where we'd gotten to know his courtside quirks and, if crowd and television figures were any guide, decided the kid was OK. At Melbourne Park, the buzz was all about Bernie.
Yet back on the Gold Coast, it was no happy homecoming. Police had tailed Tomic home, alleging he'd failed to stop when they tried to pull him over. Tomic locked himself in the house, TV cameras soon arrived to film the suburban stand-off. John Tomic knows his son isn't without fault but he still can't understand what he did to attract the attention of the cops and national media for several days in a row. "If Bernard was drunk or Bernard was speeding or Bernard passed a red light, pull him up," John Tomic says. "But he didn't do nothing. Bernard was at the light, with his friends, waiting for it to turn green." In the saga that ensued, Tomic was charged with minor traffic offences and sold his Beamer at auction. He'll return to the Gold Coast in November to fight the charges arising from the incident.
There have been a series of well documented blow-ups between John Tomic and tennis officials that evoke the stereotype of an ugly tennis parent. The common thread is that, whenever he suspects his son is being cheated, he refuses to stand idly by: dragging his son off court from a suburban tournament in Perth in 2008, when the umpire failed to foot-fault his opponent; rounding on Tiley and Tennis Australia in 2010 for scheduling 17-year-old Bernard to play late at night at the Australian Open. "He still thinks it is my fault that Bernard lost the match," Tiley says. "He will never forgive me for that." Bernard Tomic's comments about the "ridiculous" scheduling of the 2010 night match earned him a public rebuke from Tiley. His decision to forfeit the match in Perth triggered disciplinary proceedings that jeopardised his place in the following year's Australian Open.
Having dealt with John Tomic over a long period of time, Tiley believes he is driven by method rather than madness. For years, Tiley had been quietly encouraging John to bring in another coach and accept a reduced role in Team Tomic. Now, he is convinced the best thing for Bernard is for John to continue as coach for as long as Bernard plays. Only John Tomic can get the best out of his son, he says. On both these points, Bernard fully agrees. He says the public stereotype of his father as a track-suited ogre is hurtful and wrong.
"No one knows him like I do," he says. "I love him for who he is and what he has done. I always will. You see criticism of your father and how this is not working - how are you going to deal with that? I read the papers and see it and sometimes it is funny, that is what people actually think. Dad is a very different guy when you actually meet him. To me, he is a great guy, a great person."
What we see or read about John and Bernard Tomic is sometimes no more than father and son having a moment. You might have seen YouTube footage of Bernard, in the middle of a difficult match in Miami recently, imploring the chair umpire to do something about his father, who was shown glowering in the stands. "He's annoying - I know he is my father but he is annoying me," Tomic is heard complaining. "I want him to leave, but how is that possible?" In the days that followed, speculation swirled over whether the relationship between father and son was fraying and whether Tomic would soon be seeking a new coach. Tomic explains it was nothing of the sort and had nothing to do with tennis. "That was like, 'Get out of my room, dad.' It wasn't telling your coach to go away. Nobody really knows what happened that day."
Like most father and son flare-ups, there is a back story to what happened in Miami. Earlier that day, at a time when Tomic should have been preparing to play a big match against David Ferrer, one of the world's top players, he had discovered that his hitting partner had come to work without any racquets. Tomic was annoyed but knew his father would be furious, so instead of warming up for the match Tomic was complicit in a Fawlty Towers-style cover-up to keep the absence of racquets and the ashen-faced hitting partner out of his father's view. John Tomic is nobody's fool and made his feelings known in the look he was sending Bernard from the stands. Here in Madrid several weeks later, it is a story that is 20 minutes in the telling, which is perhaps why Bernard Tomic's tongue-tied attempt to explain things at a press conference immediately after the match clouded rather than clarified matters. What this episode tells us about the 19-year-old is unremarkable; he is now at an age where he will occasionally push back against his father. "I thought, there is what happens behind the scenes the whole time, you just saw it publicly," Tiley says. "Bernard lets a lot of John's stuff go past him but once it annoys him, he goes in."
Neil Guiney has seen this side of Bernard too. Guiney turned 80 this year and has been coaching tennis since he was Bernard's age. Guiney remembers that when John Tomic first brought his seven-year-old son Bernard for a lesson, "you couldn't get a hat small enough to put on him". In contrast, John was large, emotional, and highly ambitious. "It was the very strict father and generally compliant son - it had to be," Guiney says. "It was a strong regime, John really was the boss." John Tomic sought out Guiney after another player he coached caught his eye at a junior tournament. It was a relationship that lasted for 10 years, one Guiney broke off more than once when his frustrations with Team Tomic, or theirs with him, boiled over. "John wanted to get into the action all the time. I used to lock him out of the courts when we started. I would try to get him to go shopping. He jumped the fence. I'd say, 'John, John, no, you have got to stay out, it is just a rule I have.' John is the only parent who has managed to get past this rule."
Each time Guiney quit Team Tomic, he would soon get a phone call from John coaxing him along to Bernard's next session. The last time Guiney worked with Bernard, in the lead-up to the 2010 Australian Open, he noticed a change. For starters, it was Bernard who invited him, rather than John. For the next few weeks they worked almost daily on repairing a weakness in his game. "Bernard was starting to have his own voice," Guiney says. "He would challenge things that John would want. It is what happens to all families." Without being asked by the coach, John spent less and less time on the practice court, leaving his son at work.
"They are more like brothers than father and son in lots of ways," Guiney reflects. "Most of the time they get on very well. John is still the boss but eventually, John is going to let go or Bernard is going to say, 'Listen Dad, I think I need to travel by myself.' I don't know if that would ever happen. Bernard has a good sense of humour and thank God he has. One of the reasons Bernard competes so well and keeps his calm is this tough upbringing. He had to put up with a lot in the way of discipline and schedules and John's personality. John can be smooth as silk but he can be very changeable. And you never know when it is going to happen."
John Tomic knows that in the intense environment of the professional tennis tour he needs to carefully manage his relationship with Bernard. When he was home on the Gold Coast recently he sought out legendary NRL coach Wayne Bennett for advice. Bennett said it was a hard job being both father and coach and he would need to find a balance between the two roles. John Tomic admits that finding that balance is difficult. "Off the court, he [Bernard] has his life, he is deciding lots of things," he says. "On the court, on the business, I am still trying to do discipline. Sometimes it is very hard but we both understand each other. When I see that I am a little bit hard I have to step back and let him decide. He is now turning himself into a man." And yes, John can see a time when he will no longer need to travel with Bernard. "In two years, when I hope he makes his target, I will take a step back. But now, he is still growing up."
There is no player in tennis quite like Bernard Tomic. In an era when top-100 players are mass produced from the tennis academies of Europe and the US, each equipped with a similar game and schooled with the same coaching philosophies, Tomic appears an outlier; a home-grown, idiosyncratic talent who would rather befuddle an opponent than blast him off the court. Tomic likes being different. The aim of his game it not to win but make the other guy lose. He loves being hard to play against, revels in the confusion he creates by draining the pace from a back court rally. He is the handbrake you've forgotten until you are halfway down to the shops; the hot drink prepared for a thirsty man. His job is to know exactly what you want and give you something else.
"My game is strange, a lot of people say, but it works out well," he says. "A lot of players don't like it and I can force a lot of errors out of them. That is what you want. You want the other guy to miss. When you get me out wide or hit a good shot, I will always give you the ball that you don't want. It makes them think, 'What's this?' That is why I think I get away with a lot of cheap shots. They are not as hard or powerful but they make them miss. Sometimes you don't have to win a point by hitting it hard. That is what I believe. You have to hit it where he doesn't like." Neil Guiney laughs down the phone line as he hears his essential coaching philosophy echoed in Tomic's words. "That is exactly right."
Todd Woodbridge first got to see Tomic's game up close three years ago when he travelled to New York with him for the US Open juniors. He has since coached him in Davis Cup, and now coaches for Tennis Australia. He says he has never known a player who can talk through exactly how he is going to win a point like Tomic. In an increasingly physical game, Tomic's greatest strength is how he out-thinks the bloke on the other side of the net. Added to this is what Woodbridge calls "old-fashioned flair" - a preparedness to take a chance on a shot less likely and occasionally, something that hasn't been tried before.
"There are parts of tennis I'm sure Bernard doesn't like," Woodbridge says. "The part of tennis Bernard likes is creating things on court. He loves coming up with a new shot. He loves saying, 'Did you see what I did with that ball?' That is the joy that tennis gives him. There is a shot he hits that I have never seen anyone else hit. It is a soft, inside-out forehand that almost looks like a drop shot but it is not. He looks like he is going to drive it but he pushes it across court and it fades away really low. That is his shot. He believes he owns that shot and he does, because it is his own creation."
The only thing Tomic is missing is a snappy name for his shot. From here on, it will be known as Bernard's Bluff. If you think Tomic can talk cars, just ask him about his shot. It is his favourite toy; his most precious keepsake. And he swears that in all the times he has played his bluff, only one player has ever hit a clean winner from it: Albert Montanes, earlier this year in Barcelona. "He has somehow clipped an angle winner," Tomic says. "I mean, one player has got a winner out of it. I remember exactly every time I hit that shot." For anyone who hasn't seen the shot, just wait for Wimbledon. "On grass, it is impossible once it goes over to get it because it gets there quick and the player doesn't read it. It is a weapon of mine, it really adds."
Tomic says he developed the shot absentmindedly, on the long hours he spent facing a ball machine fed by his father. When John Tomic wanted to stop to tell him something, Bernard would play his dinky little forehand to stop the ball dead. He now says he has a backhand version in production, which will be ready for selective release in time for next year's Australian Open.
Guiney is pleased but laments the short memories that abound in tennis. He points out that most of the great players in Australia's golden era of tennis in the 1950s and 1960s had a version of Bernard's Bluff. "It is something all these players ought to do," Guiney says. "If Bernard is unorthodox, it is because he has got more variety in this game than a lot of those other players. I call Bernard's game orthodox." John Tomic calls Guiney the best coach in the world. Guiney laughs at this, saying John is prone to exaggeration.
On the day we are talking, Tomic's deft hands and conjurer's tricks have moved him up the world rankings to 31, a spot that guarantees him a seed for the French Open (where he'll crash out in the second round). He has picked up a few more places in the countdown to Wimbledon (at the time of going to press he was ranked 29) but there is only one position he is interested in. Men's tennis is governed by three extraordinary talents in Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, who between them have won every grand slam tournament but one for the past seven years. There is a commotion downstairs in the players' restaurant and we turn to watch the arrival of Djokovic, the world's No.1 player. A glad-hand of suits gathers around him, fussing, gesticulating, ushering him through. Despite the absurd attention, Djokovic merely smiles, nods, his back ramrod straight, his tennis gear clinging to his lean frame.
Tomic knows he can't bluff his way to where Djokovic is. He needs to toy less with his opponents and develop a ruthless, strike-first approach. After Tomic took a set off Djokovic in their quarter-final at Wimbledon last year, Djokovic marvelled at how cool the young Australian was in the hottest moments. The flipside is that against opponents he should easily beat, Tomic's game can turn stone cold. These are the times when Tomic, like the rest of us, gets bored at work. "It can cost you," Tomic says. "You have got to find - I have got to find - that level of always playing good."
Tomic looks at his watch and is surprised he has been talking for an hour and a half. It is the longest he has spent in an interview and as long as he usually likes to spend in the players' lounge, where the conversation too often turns on ranking points and racquets and who's coaching who and, well, tennis. In a remark that gives you an idea of the challenge John Tomic has ahead of him, Tomic says he can't be expected to play his best tennis if he is not having fun. That means time away from the game, whether it is spent looking up the latest car on the internet or his next girlfriend among his text messages. Does he enjoy fame? It is one of the few questions Tomic meets with a rote answer, saying that it is new, he is handling it well, that he has a lot to learn. Tiley has no doubt. "He likes talking tennis, he likes talking teenage stuff, and he likes being famous."
To help you decide, here's a little story from a few years ago, at the same Perth tournament where Tomic was pulled off court by his father. Unable to find a warm-up court where the tournament was being played in Sorrento, Tomic and his father drove to a neighbouring club at North Beach. A local coach who was running a practice session at the time takes up the story: "I was coaching on one of the courts and he saw a girl who I coached. She was quite a young, attractive kind of girl. He caught her eye and then got a tennis ball and put his name and phone number on the ball and bounced it to her. He wasn't lacking any confidence, that's for sure." In case you are wondering, she called.