Caught in the middle: Bernard Tomic. Photo: Getty Images
Allegations that a ‘‘hitting partner’s’’ job description was taken rather too literally. John Tomic spending more time in the Spanish courts than son Bernard did on the court. If you aren’t the French journeyman wearing a neck brace, and with sticking plaster across your broken nose, you almost have to laugh.
Reflexively, you recall the comic book images of Damir Dokic being evicted from Flushing Meadows for – you can’t make this stuff up – arguing about the price of fish. Or Jim Pierce pressing his red face against the fence at a junior event and screaming the line that is surely emblazoned across the entrance of the Ugly Parents Hall of Fame: ‘‘Kill the bitch, Mary!’’
For those of us who are consumed by guilt after suggesting – in a hesitant tone we hope is not overheard by our fellow latte sippers – that our child might chase the ball a bit harder, there is something otherworldly about these fanatical, belligerent parents. Something so perversely at odds with our ideas about sport, and competition, that we mock as much as we condemn.
Evicted: Jelena Dokic's father Damir Dokic at Wimbledon. Photo: Reuters
The sight of Yuri Sharapov running his finger across his throat during the pivotal moment of his daughter Maria Sharapova’s Australian Open match? So bizarrely out of context in a supposedly elegant sport played by glamorous athletes, and watched by a mostly polite, well-heeled audience, it is almost satirical. Like Rambo at a book club threatening to run a blade through anyone who doesn’t think Tim Winton nailed the last chapter.
Behind the scenes, the relationship with the ugly tennis parent is more disturbing and complex. Partly because there is a case to be made that the same repulsive outbursts of the most repugnant parents are merely at the extreme edge of the character traits – obsessive drive, an unrelenting appetite for success – that has taken a talented kid to the top. This is acknowledged, very privately, by those who have the delicate, sometimes conflicted task, of dealing with both parties.
‘‘It’s the curse and the blessing,’’ a local official once told me. ‘‘Some of the best kids have the worst parents. But they’re the ones who are driving their kids to the levels you need to compete internationally. We have to deal with that as best we can.’’
Tennis Australia has taken a harder line with players and parents recently – laudable given the crushing pressure to produce top-flight players in a now truly international sport. Tomic and his father have been disciplined. Most notably after John Tomic dragged his son from the court mid-match.
But, globally, authorities are less vigilant. This is the inevitable consequence of a world in which players and their families terrorise agents frightened of losing their clients; agents attempt to ride roughshod over tour officials; tour officials are frightened to mete out meaningful punishment in case they offend players off-side; and some media kowtow to players, agents and officials in turn for the crumbs thrown from the interview table.
This creates an unhealthy environment in which the most basic aspects of sound administration, particularly routine discipline, are ignored. One in which superstars curse linesmen and umpires with virtual impunity. Where it is easy to imagine those at the lowest end of the food chain, such as Tomic’s hitting partner Thomas Drouet, being treated with contempt. It is an environment in which serious cases of abuse are too easily tolerated, or even ignored. Damir Dokic was, in some minds, a comical character after his drunken rampages at Wimbledon and hysterical rants. Then Jelena Dokic revealed, very reluctantly, that her father had not just raised his hand to hail a taxi.
An allegation whispered in corridors, but never previously proven. Finally, the almost endearing image of Dokic as some sort of erratic buffoon was shattered.
Drouet alleges he saw John Tomic strike his son during a practice session. This, and his own alleged mistreatment by John Tomic, are part of the sequence of events Drouet claims led to Tomic headbutting him outside a Spanish hotel.
Regardless of what the court finds, it is an awful mess made worse by its aching inevitability. One in which yet another supremely talented, if immature, tennis player is both the product, and the victim, of parental obsession.