SYDNEY (Reuters) - Control-freak and parasite or loving father determined to help his son make the most of a rare tennis talent - John Tomic does not so much divide opinion in Australia as split it into ‘Bernard against the rest’.
On Monday, the father and coach of Australia’s top male tennis player faced a Madrid court after head-butting his practice partner Thomas Drouet, saying he acted in self-defense.
By far the most serious of the incidents that have pock-marked his son’s career, John’s many critics in Australian tennis will be hoping the latest unfortunate episode might elicit a ban that would finally force him to step down as coach.
He is unlikely to walk away quietly, however.
“Family is the best thing for kids, that’s my rule,” he told Reuters at Wimbledon in 2011 after his then 18-year-old son had reached the quarter-finals. “You’ll find many parents who have given their kids to coaches, but where are they now?
“Who else can you trust but your family?”
Having escaped the war that tore apart his homeland, Croatian-born John and his Bosnian wife were working in Germany when Bernard was born 20 years ago in Stuttgart.
Three years later, the whole family upped sticks and moved to Australia’s Gold Coast, a sun-drenched metropolis of seaside holiday resorts popular with athletes in training.
Bernard’s skill with a tennis racket was not a secret for long and at 13 he was signed by renowned sports agency IMG.
The only boy ever to win the under-12, 14 and 16 trophies at the prestigious Orange Bowl tournament in Miami, Tomic became the youngest male to win the Australian Open junior title in 2008 at the age of 15.
In 2011 he made his senior breakthrough, reaching the last eight of the main draw at Wimbledon.
His rise had been accompanied by frequent controversies surrounding his father, however, starting in 2006 when John made a written apology for forcing a car carrying two tennis coaches and a young female player off the road.
As a 16-year-old, Bernard was banned for a month from ITF tournaments after following his father’s instructions to walk off court at a development event in protest at inaction against what John alleged was repeated foot-faulting by his opponent.
At the 2010 Australian Open, father and son raged after his second round tie against Marin Cilic was moved to the night session, John threatening that his son would quit Australia and play for Croatia.
That threat was a flashing warning light for Australian tennis lovers, who feared Bernard may end up squandering his undoubted talent, echoing as it did the abandonment of Australia by Jelena Dokic.
Tomic’s critics see a possible precedent in the story of Dokic, another child of immigrants from former Yugoslavia who was coached by a controlling parent.
U.S. Open junior champion in 1998, Dokic reached number four in the world and the Wimbledon semi-finals in 2002 before her career unraveled as her eccentric father Damir raged against the tennis world.
John’s fear is that by handing his son over to another coach, the unpredictable playing style that makes him a threat to the best players in the world will be drilled out of him.
“I know what I am doing and I will continue to improve Bernard as a player,” the physically imposing former taxi driver said in that Wimbledon interview two years ago.
“We have to do something different than the rest of the world. If we are the same, where will we be?”
Criticism of his coaching reached a frenzy at the end of last year when Bernard, having peaked at number 27, slumped to 49th in the world on the back of a string of first and second round defeats.
To add to his discomfort, he was dubbed “Tomic the Tank Engine” after fading in the latter stages of defeats at the U.S. Open and Shanghai Masters.
Bernard’s first coach said he could barely watch him play any more and described his relationship with his father as “dysfunctional”.
“One of his problems is Bernard knows a lot more about it than his father now,” Neil Guiney, who helped nurture Bernard’s talent from the age of seven, told the Australian newspaper.
“His father is there calling the tune and screaming and yelling and Bernard just shuts his ears.
“So you have got a terrible situation there. He is out of his depth and I think John is out of his depth.”
Bernard bounced back with his maiden ATP title at the Sydney International in January, however, and his comments about his father after the victory were instructive.
“He is for me the best coach,” he said. “That’s why I’ve always had him by my side and always will continue to have him there to support me.”
Editing by Peter Rutherford