From today's Sydney Morning Herald. Like him or not, fans can't have it both ways on Tomic
January 15, 2013
Around court 16 at Melbourne Park, a large group of fans more interested in seeing Bernard Tomic hone his forehand than watch a real match train their mobile phones on the newly minted Sydney International champion. If support for Tomic ahead of tonight's Australian Open first-round match against Leonardo Mayer was to be judged by the devotion of this assembly, the 20-year-old's status as beloved local hero would seem unequivocal.
But these are the pimple-faced stargazers and tennis tragics dressed in replica apparel in the apparent expectation they could be called upon at any moment to replace an injured Spanish baseliner. Winning the hearts of the wider Australian public could prove - unfairly or not - a far greater challenge for Tomic.
The parallels between Tomic and the young Lleyton Hewitt are obvious. Raw teenage talents tainted by a tempestuous relationship with officialdom and the media. Yet, in his mostly sanguine behaviour on court, and a seemingly naive nature, the Australian prodigy Tomic resembles most is Mark Philippoussis.
Like Philippoussis, both Tomic's work ethic and appetite for the contest have been questioned. With good reason given his ''strategic withdrawal'' from a handful of matches last year, most ignominiously in his ''tank job'' against Andy Roddick at Flushing Meadows.
Because of his incredible power and seemingly limitless potential, Philippoussis has been cast as a waster - of both talent and his rich rewards. Forgotten is that he was the hero of two Australian Davis Cup final victories - a task beyond the beloved Pat Rafter. That Philippoussis led Pete Sampras by a set and a break in a Wimbledon quarter-final in 1999, only for his knee to collapse beneath him on the slippery grass. That he defied considerable discomfort to reach the Wimbledon final in 2003.
The Philippoussis comparison invites the unspoken question about Tomic - his ethnicity. In a country sadly less at ease with its multicultural make-up than it was 15 years ago, even being asked to tackle the pronunciation of a Baltic surname - it is ''ic'', not ''itch'' - fuels the prejudice of some. Particularly those fostering the hoary myth of Australian athletes as fair-headed, zinc-nosed farm boys with ''hearts like pumpkins''. Those who invoke the ugly and divisive term ''unAustralian'' to chastise Tomic for his lack of Hewitt-esque fight - even if Seven's absurdly parochial scoreboard graphic favours him with the national flag.
The presence of Tomic's strong-willed father John perpetuates the ''ethnic'' stereotype - a la Jelena Dokic and Philippoussis. Overlooked is that Hewitt's omnipresent parents share the blame for the hostile outlook the young Hewitt displayed even in his earliest days on tour, and which soured some of his great triumphs.
The mature, articulate Hewitt who has become a role model for the next generation of Australian players began his international grand slam career by cursing at an opponent and an umpire, and throwing his racquet into the net. You might argue the indiscretions - or at least those publicly revealed - that have earned Tomic his current Tennis Australia suspension are less heinous.
The departure with Philippoussis is in the playing style. Tomic is languid, almost ornate. Philippoussis was muscular and bombastic.
Tomic's turbulent start presents some dilemmas for observers. The first is to judge his misdemeanours without prejudice. Difficult through the tennis media that can be both sycophantic and scolding. Even harder when athletes hold the world at arm's length, appearing only for opportunistic sponsorship obligations and mandatory press conferences.
In that regard, Tomic can be refreshingly honest, if - especially his public spat with the beloved Rafter - naive. Perhaps Tomic should, quite literally, let his racquet do the talking. Propped up at the press conference desk, the Yonex would surely prove no less lucid, and certainly less controversial, than Tomic himself.
When Hewitt lambasted an Adelaide crowd who dared cheer his badly-beaten opponent, he betrayed how much he needed to be loved. Tomic seems more indifferent to outside perceptions. So perhaps his performance here will say more about the observers than the player.
Most obviously, Tomic poses a question all too common in modern sport. Do the ends justify the means? Do Tomic's raw results override any misgivings we might have about his behaviour, or even his character?
No doubt, those who see only that Australian flag beside Tomic's name will care only that he keeps the local hopes alive. The rest of us will cling to the absurd notion that, in the attributes we demand of true champions, we can still have it all.