We've come a long way from the days when the word "prodigy" as applied to a tennis player was the equivalent of a warning label. The game has poured forth a string of ambitious, exemplary, hard-working young stars since the heydays of a tormented Jennifer Capriati and a rebellious Andre Agassi. Rafael Nadal, rather than, oh, John McEnroe, is the role model now.
But thanks to Bernard Tomic, we may regress to those days when not all the headlines made by a young star were admirable. Tomic is a hot-blooded Aussie of Croatian extraction; he was born in Germany, reaped the benefits of a supportive Australian tennis establishment (he grew up in Queensland) and now resides in Monte Carlo.
At 15, Tomic became the youngest player to win the Australian Open junior title. By 18, he was a Wimbledon quarterfinalist (in 2011). By 19 he was in trouble with the police. And by 20 (just weeks ago), he was kicked off the Australian Davis Cup team, partly because of his insolence but also because once again the police had to throttle him -- this time after a late-night fracas with someone described only as a "friend." I presume that's "former" friend.
What's this kid going to be doing when he's 21? Well, if he's not careful, he might be washing dishes or delivering groceries. He's been on a self-destructive path for some time now, and there's little help in sight. The establishment types and icons of Australian tennis are sick and tired of him. Tomic's father, John, is also his coach, and all you need to know about that relationship is that earlier this year, Tomic unsuccessfully petitioned the chair umpire to remove John Tomic from the stadium during his second-round match in the Miami Masters.
The ump refused to have John ejected, but he did slap Tomic with a warning for coaching. It was one of the few times in Tomic's turbulent year when you could see why the kid blew his cork.
Tomic's year started with enormous expectations. He had finished 2011 ranked No. 42 (up 166 places from the end of 2010) and appeared poised for a breakout year. Instead, it turned into a breakdown year, starting on Australia Day, which is celebrated during the Down Under Grand Slam on Jan. 26.
Tomic had a good start at the Australian Open, losing in the fourth round to No. 3 seed Roger Federer (it would help him reach a career high of No. 27 a few months later). But on Australia Day, he was busted for driving his hot BMW M3 sports car recklessly as well as illegally.
Tomic's next match was a Davis Cup rubber against the No. 502 player in the world, China's Di Wu. Tomic lost that one, and had had back-to-back wins just once before the Munich tournament in early April. He wouldn't win two consecutive matches after that until the dog days of August, in Cincinnati.
The turning point for Tomic seemed to be Wimbledon, where he was seeded No. 20. He took the first set from wild card David Goffin, but he seemed listless and cranky as Goffin won the next three.
In his news conference afterward, Tomic said: "I think the last few months I have sort of slacked off a little bit and look what it's costing me. It's just strange."
Give him points for honesty, anyway. But his vow to get back to work and make the "top 15, 20" by the end of the year was delusional (that may explain some of the things that transpired later). Things turned ugly at the U.S. Open, where Tomic's lackluster effort against Andy Roddick in a controversial second-round match earned him one of the all-time nicknames: "Tomic the tank engine." Tomic won back-to-back matches at just one more tournament (Bangkok) before he finished the year with three straight first-round losses. He wound up with a final 2012 ranking of No. 52.
When questioned by police at that postseason altercation a few weeks ago (it was allegedly part of a multiday celebration of Tomic's 20th birthday), he had to gall to ask that toxic question, "Do you know who I am?"
They probably did, but at the rate Tomic is going he may soon be asking, "Do you remember who I was?"