By Michael Chammas
John Tomic talks to his son during the 2018 Australian Open.Credit:Getty
Bernard Tomic has lived his life in fear of his father.
“I’m still scared of my dad,” Tomic says after agreeing to an interview to address the demons that have haunted him throughout a maligned career which stands as a monument to unfulfilled talent.
“I wouldn't want to be raising my kid the way I was raised.”
The startling admission comes as the 29-year-old attempts to atone for the mistakes of his past, recently setting off – without his father by his side – to pursue redemption in a bid to “retire guilt free”.
John Tomic watches on as his son Bernard trains during the 2016 Australian Open.Credit:Getty
That quest got off to a shaky start following his controversial exit from the Australian Open qualifiers earlier this week, however, as the Herald and The Age revealed on Thursday afternoon, Tomic’s claims that he was battling COVID-19 were proved correct when he returned a positive test.
Sitting inside Nine’s Melbourne headquarters last week, Tomic was reluctant to delve too deep into his relationship with his father, John.
Even now, Tomic still defends his father – struggling to separate the emotions of appreciation and resentment towards him.
“He’s done many things to me,” Tomic told the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age
“He’s whacked balls at me, racquets and stuff. I mean, the guy is a crazy man, for sure. But he made me who I am today. It was discipline at 100 per cent.”
“When you look at it now, in a way I wouldn’t raise anyone like that. But I didn’t know any better. Parents can be a little bit … you know? He’s a good man and has a good heart and he put a lot of time and effort into making me who I am.”
Those who have been close to Tomic will tell you that to understand him, you need to understand his upbringing.
How the controlling influence of his father, who declined to comment when contacted for this story, turned his son’s natural talents into one of the most exciting teenage tennis players the world has seen.
The pressure of living up to the hype, and his father’s lofty ambitions which saw him remove his son from school at the age of 13 to spend 10 hours a day on court, saw Tomic’s career crushed under the weight of expectation. It was compounded by a series of poor decisions by Tomic along the way.
“Unless he was prepared to allow us to talk John out of being so domineering, or Bernard was prepared to disentangle himself, there was just nothing we could do,” former Tennis Australia president Steve Healy told the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.
Former Tennis Australia president, Steve Healy.Credit:Getty
“My impression was that Bernard wasn’t prepared to take control of his own career away from his father.
“His talent was immense, and it was obvious from a young age. But John controlled the money. John’s take was, ‘Give us the cheque and we’ll take care of everything else’. But our position was that there are conditions attached to the provision of support.”
“He wouldn’t agree to meet them. He wouldn’t let go. John controlled Bernie emotionally. It was just such a domineering presence. John would just never get out of the way. There’s a great waste of talent.”
At the age of 14, Tomic signed the most lucrative Nike deal of any sportsman his age. “Younger than Michael Jordan,” he quips.
He went on to become, aged 16, the youngest male to win a match at the Australian Open .
He became the youngest player since Boris Becker in 1986 to reach the quarter-finals at Wimbledon when he took on Novak Djokovic as an 18-year-old in 2011.
Those feats at such a young age only fuelled his father’s desire for his son to reach the summit.
Novak Djokovic consoles Bernard Tomic after a four set victory against the then 18-year-old in the quarter finals at Wimbledon in 2011.Credit:Getty
“[My dad’s] expectations of me as a player were always too high,” Tomic said. “Being No.1, winning 10-20 grand slams … there was a lot of pressure put on me from my father.
“It’s not easy. People don’t see this constant world of pressure, pressure, pressure. At times, I didn’t want to play tennis.
“It was not something I enjoyed 100 per cent doing. But I was beating everyone and with winning comes a lot of good feelings with emotions as a young kid. And it grew on me.”
Tomic the tank engine
The more his father pushed, the further Tomic pushed away. He admits he tanked matches to send a message as he struggled to cope with life on the road and the expectations of those around him.
The tank job against Andy Roddick on centre court in prime time at the US Open in 2012 is still etched in Pat Rafter’s memory.
The Bernard Tomic match against Andy Roddick at Arthur Ashe Stadium back in 2012 that Pat Rafter labelled ‘a disgrace’ at the time.Credit:Getty
“I told him, ‘That was a disgrace’,” Rafter recalled.
“I said, ‘I don’t give a shit if you win or lose, just please show me you’re going to have a go. Don’t waste my time, don’t waste everyone’s time and everyone’s money by you not trying’.
“I can’t stand that. I wouldn’t put my reputation on the line for his behaviour. He’s a really complicated kid who has had a really tough upbringing. That’s why I will always have a real soft spot for him.
“And that’s why I was the wrong person to deal with it. I wanted to call people on their bullshit. I was just far too brutal and didn’t understand the subtleties of dealing with people and their issues. I’m not an empathetic person, it’s not something that sits well with me. I wish I was, but I call things as I see it.”
The relationship between Rafter and Tomic blew up in flames when the latter accused the former Tennis Australia high-performance director of being a “good actor” and a “mask” for his superiors after bowing out of Wimbledon in 2015.
Pat Rafter and a young Bernard Tomic together during the 2012 Davis Cup for Australia.Credit:Getty
“There was no one reaching out saying, ’Bernard are you okay? Can we help you a bit here, is anything bothering you?” Tomic said.
“No one is really reaching out for your health. I'm a human. I have emotions. I'm not a switch where you can just flick on and flick off like a robot. At the time I was disappointed. Disappointed in myself. Disappointed in people because there's stuff there people don't see in the background.”
“Let me ask you this. If you were walking on to the court and you had drama in your life; family issues, relationship problems or your parents were sick or someone died … How would you feel as a person?
“They don’t see and understand that there are all these obstacles about life that are thrown at you, and you have to handle them on a tennis court. Would I have handled it differently? For sure. Maybe I wouldn’t have walked on the court? Maybe that’s my fault? I own up to that as well.
Bernard Tomic has admitted being lonely throughout large parts of his career, playing a sport he never truly loved.Credit:Getty
“It’s hard. All that pressure being thrown on as a player, as a person, as a kid. Then you have to face all these other obstacles… it’s not easy. It’s not an easy position to be trapped alone, in your shell in this defence mechanism world. There were death threats.”
“People saying ‘You’re an idiot, leave this country’. All that sort of bullying, it’s not nice. We as Australians, we’re better than that. That period of my life was very dark. I understand the stuff I did, I was in the wrong, I said the wrong things, did the wrong things, but c’mon.”
Rafter says he just didn’t know how to handle the situation.
“You’re right, there wasn’t a lot [of support],” Rafter said.
“But we didn’t know what he was after. When you’re not giving much back anyway and being difficult to deal with, how much are you supposed to reach out? He’s got to give back, too. It’s got to work both ways doesn’t it? Maybe we were wrong.”
Counting my millions
Any support Tomic had left among the Australian public diminished following comments he made in 2018 when, after failing to qualify for the Australian Open, told reporters that “I just count money, that’s all I do. I count my millions.”
For a country that values hard work and humility, the comments were seen as proof that Tomic was nothing but a spoilt brat.
“I think a lot of his actions were the result of insecurities. Trying to prove himself to people,” Healy said of Tomic.
“It was very hard for him to fit in, and the way he carried on sometimes was an insecurity. A deflection. And it’s quite sad. There’s no doubt his father contributed to that.”
With success at an early age came the temptations. The women, the cars, the money … it all became a distraction from the unrelenting grind of trying to live out his father’s dream.
“That was always my goal – I visioned having Ferraris and having things,” Tomic admits.
Bernard Tomic driving his yellow Ferrari back in 2014.
“But that sort of stuff doesn’t make you happy in life when you get to a certain point. It doesn’t fulfil you at the end of the day. Yes, you have got money, houses and cars, but it doesn’t … it’s good for a second, but this stuff is not there. As a person deep down inside you’re always searching for something that drives you and makes you happy.
“Once you’ve experienced the sort of things I have in the fast lane, you become a little bit depleted and bored. It becomes a little bit depressing at times. With all due respect, I’ve matured now. I’m not the same person I was.”
“I think differently, I see things differently. I believe people learn a lot as they get older. That’s why I’m doing this interview here today, to express how I feel and to change as a person. To be a role model for kids, a better role model I should say. And fulfil stuff I haven’t done in the sport of tennis.”
“I’m sorry, Lleyton’
Tomic and former No.1 Lleyton Hewitt have endured an on-again, off-again relationship.
One of the first missteps of Tomic’s career was allowing his entourage to tell Hewitt that he wasn’t good enough to practice with the then 16-year-old at Wimbledon. It was a first impression he struggled to change.
“I was a kid,” Tomic said. “I was influenced by the people and I didn't have my say. If I could have had the opportunity to hit with Lleyton I would. He went on to inspire me.
Lleyton Hewitt mentoring Tomic through the 2016 Davis Cup tie against the United States in Melbourne.Credit:Getty
“He was one of my idols. He went on to be my coach for four or five years after that … I learned a lot [from] him. His legacy, his tennis speaks for itself. He was No.1 in the world. He was an unbelievable player.”
Despite repairing their relationship and working closely for many years after that, Tomic and Hewitt are no longer on speaking terms.
Hewitt claims that Tomic blackmailed him and physically threatened both he and his family after refusing to give him a wildcard to the Australian Open or pick him in Davis Cup.
“I think when Bernie was attacking people and saying all those things, he wasn’t damaging the people he was attacking. He was damaging himself,” John Newcombe said.
Bernard Tomic wants to patch things up with Lleyton Hewitt after the pair fell out a few years ago.Credit:Getty
Tomic wants to make things right, using the interview to apologise to the former world No.1.
“I was just a little bit forceful [to] him and said ‘if you come near me I’ll do x and x’,” Tomic revealed.
“He wanted me to do a few things that I didn’t want to do and I got a little bit arrogant, which I own up to. I know that I could have not done the things that I done or said the things I said.
“But for sure at the moment when he didn’t give me the wildcard, I probably wouldn’t have given me the wildcard. I was 250 in the world. The moment when he didn’t let me play Davis Cup, I wouldn’t have let me play Davis cup for Australia.”
“So I understand his position now. When I look at it … I actually know that he's moved to the Gold Coast so Lleyton if you're watching let's have a coffee. Everything I said I take back. I own up to it. Lleyton's legacy and his tennis speaks for itself and in the future I hope to patch things up with him.”
One last chance
After dismantling Tomic in straight sets in Miami three years ago, Novak Djokovic approached the Australian in the locker room after the match.
“I still remember the one thing he said to me,” Tomic recalls of the encounter with Djokovic, who inspired the Queenslander to become vegan a few years ago.
“He said to me, ‘Bernard, if I had half your talent, where would I be?’”
Novak Djokovic has long been in Tomic’s corner.Credit:Getty
This coming from a player on the verge of breaking the record for the most men’s grand slam triumphs.
“He had a lot of talent,” Newcombe said of Tomic. “He just didn’t work hard enough. He thought it was all going to happen. He was receiving some very bad advice.“
A quick round of phone calls to some of the biggest names in Australian tennis and it becomes painstakingly clear that many have given up on him, albeit holding on to a glimmer of hope that he somehow defies the odds and finishes his career the way he should have handled the past decade.
“How many times do you give someone second chances?” Rafter said.
Pat Rafter with Tennis Australia CEO Craig Tiley after Tomic was dumped from the Australian Davis Cup team for making a range of defamatory accusations against the governing body and its staff in 2015.Credit:Getty
“With Bernie, it’s five chances. It’s 10 chances. But look, I have a soft spot for Bernie and I certainly hope that all the things he is saying about changing is genuine. If he can make those things come to fruition, I will be really happy for him.
“I’m supportive of him. I don’t care if people ask why, given what he has said about me. I always had a soft spot for him, but I was the wrong person to mentor him. In saying that, I’m always there if he wants to chat. If he came up to me and said, ‘Pat, let’s chat’, then bloody oath. I would sit down with him.
“I’d spend time with anyone who is willing to see the error of their ways and is willing to have a crack. If Bernie has a crack for three or four years, and even if nothing happens, he might find a lot of peace within himself. I hope he does. I really do.”
The road to redemption got off to a shaky start on Tuesday, with Tomic failing to get past the first round of qualifiers for the Australian Open.
Complaints of battling COVID, which contributed to another sub-par performance, has only amplified the doubts over his willingness to change. But his comments have since been vindicated after testing positive on Thursday.
At the age of 14 he had the world at his feet. He did an interview at the time where he claimed he already had the heart of Hewitt and was half way to having the mindset of Pete Sampras.
He now sits here 15 years later ranked 257th in the world and has never progressed beyond the quarter final of a grand slam – a feat he accomplished 11 years ago.
“Time is running out,” Tomic said. “I’ve realised I need to snap out of it and get back to the sport, finish it off the right way and retire happy. Guilt free.”
“There are so many things I could have done. I could have won Wimbledon in my career. But I know I can do it. There's a window coming in the next five or six years before I retire and I'm going to do it. I've got my eyes on it and I will do it.
“To have that talent there and not fulfil your potential, it's going to hurt me when I do retire. I want to do this for myself. Not for you, not for my father, not for anyone. But to prove to myself that I could have done this. This is rock bottom. There's only up from here.”
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