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Bad sport: some of the best kids have the worst parents

Caught in the middle: Bernard Tomic.

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.

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.

12 comments so far

  • Largely accurate article, but Tomic is not a "good kid". He lacks the humility, tact, and most of all talent (lollipop tennis anyone?) to ever be a true ambassador for Australia or our tennis hopes.

    Commenter
    BigBlackDog
    Date and time
    May 08, 2013, 6:58AM
    • @BigBlackDog, and how much humility and tact would you have if your dad essentially beat you for not doing what he wanted? Parents exert an enormous influence in how we grow up and behave towards others, so just perhaps we can give Bernard a second chance if he moves away from his dad and into better company.

      Commenter
      Misha
      Location
      Misha
      Date and time
      May 08, 2013, 10:55AM
    • I'm willing to concede he lacks humility and tact, but to say he lacks talent is completely baseless. Last time I checked he was the highest ranked player for his age, which is a pretty damn good effort. If he can take the next step to break into the top 20 and top 10 is yet to be seen, but it won't be due to a lack of talent.

      If the reports of his dad's behaviour and treatment of him are true, I think he has done fairly well to turn out as he has. If I had a dad that was so full on, I would have probably quit the sport years ago.

      Commenter
      Budz
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      May 08, 2013, 1:40PM
    • You clearly haven't watched him play recently. When he was a 16yo prodigy, lollipop tennis was a fair description as he was too small to do much else. These days he hits as hard as anyone as well as having a good sense of court position and when to take speed off the ball.

      A fair criticism would refer to his serve (only ticking around 200km from 6'5" (which is still faily handy)) and his court movement (always a real problem for a man of his height). Something he also needs to learn is to play dirty tennis. He is capable of playing near perfect tennis, but needs to remember when things aren't perfect he can still be better than the person at the other end if he keeps his brain switched on.

      Tomic may not be a 'good kid' in your mind, but if you spend your life being ruled by a tyrant, you try to come out a completely balanced individual. From what I can see in interviews he is generally self-deprecating of his ability and aware of his betters and generally does not disrespect his competitors, which to me is somewhat surprising given his apparent upbringing.

      Commenter
      Wrong
      Date and time
      May 08, 2013, 1:56PM
    • Don't think I'd call Tomic jnr one of the "best kids". He might have talent, but I don't think anyone would put him up there as a role model! Given his past behaviour, I'd say the apple doesn't fall far from the tree...

      Commenter
      Like father like son
      Date and time
      May 08, 2013, 3:40PM
  • Agree. Tomic jnr is a sporting disgrace, with his flouting road laws, poncing about in expensive cars and total disregard for authority. He wasn't called "Tomic the tank engine" for nothing. No sense of pride in representing his country - all about him. Immature and hugely overpaid - I mean all he does to earn millions of $$ is to run around a court hitting a bloody ball! His father is obviously a first class dill but Tomic is not a child anymore.

    Commenter
    Justin
    Date and time
    May 08, 2013, 8:30AM
    • What does him driving fast cars have to do with anything? You sound jealous mate.
      And how is he over paid? He earned absolutely every cent he has gotten so far. If you dedicated your whole life to one career, you also may be earning some good coin.
      Every sports person I think earns every cent they get paid because the free market is deciding what they get paid. People want to watch them and pay money for that, and they get part of that. Why don't you become good at something someone else would pay to see and then you could have some money too?

      Commenter
      Budz
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      May 08, 2013, 11:22PM
  • Bernie Tomic is by far our best, most talented current player.

    Yes, he's immature, but this year he has shown some improvement in his attitude.

    Commenter
    tennisfan
    Location
    sydney
    Date and time
    May 08, 2013, 10:04AM
    • Having had a son and daughter both ranked in the top 10 in NSW, what horrified our family most was the aggressive nut-case parents shouting, screaming, cheating, yelling, abusing both their own kids & their opponents at every tournament. The officials did absolutely nothing because their obsession was for another world champion at any cost. So bad behaviour by the kids (from age 7 up, we're not talking adults here) and their obsessive parents who obviously never won anything other beyond an egg and spoon race and are living their dreams through their kids, was rampant, tolerated and unfettered.
      Eventually at 16 both my son and daughter left the game. Everyone is your bitter enemy, you make no friends here. Those you beat hate your guts and their parents yell and scream every time you call a ball out and those who beat you are arrogant and distant.
      Good riddance to this sport. We ended up hating every minute of it.

      Commenter
      Blueyes
      Date and time
      May 08, 2013, 10:14AM
      • That's at the top of the sport though. I'd still encourage them to play the game for fun and not for sheep stations. Having just got back into it since a recent shoulder injury, I forgot how much I missed it.

        Commenter
        Budz
        Location
        Sydney
        Date and time
        May 08, 2013, 11:27PM

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