Australia loves a champion. And with Lleyton Hewitt on his way out, the search is on. But there is a problem and it is with a batch of junior male players who are threatening to waste their talent at the alter of indiscpline and brattishness.
Australia loves a champion. In Lleyton Hewitt the country has had a fighter in the best traditions of a nation that has produced so many sporting heroes, but the former Wimbledon champion is not the force he was. As Australia looks for its next generation of winners, the concern is that too many of its best young male players have become brats who lack the discipline needed to succeed in an increasingly competitive world.
In stark contrast to tyros from regions like eastern Europe, for whom sport can offer a passport to a better life, many young Australians, like their counterparts from some of the other traditional English-speaking tennis nations, seem to lack the commitment and appetite for work of those from less privileged parts of the planet. Given the support of their cash-rich national federations, they find life too cosy.
Three of Australia's best youngsters, Brydan Klein, Nick Lindahl and Dayne Kelly, were banned from taking part in last month's play-offs for an Australian Open wild card because of what Todd Woodbridge, Tennis Australia's director of men's tennis, described as "numerous accounts of unacceptable behaviour at tournaments both locally and internationally". Klein had earlier had his Tennis Australia coaching support withdrawn, having previously lost his scholarship at the Australian Institute of Sport after a six-month suspension for racially abusing an opponent.
A fourth, and the best, Bernard Tomic, has also had run-ins with the powers-that-be. He failed to turn up at the play-offs, citing illness, but when there were reports that he had been spotted practising near his Gold Coast home on the day they began there was a widespread feeling here that he should not be given a wild card into the Grand Slam event.
Tomic, however, is an exceptional talent and after winning three matches against higher-ranked players in Sydney last week he was handed his free entry to Melbourne Park. His ability has never been in doubt and was underlined by his 7-6, 7-6, 6-3 second-round victory here yesterday over Spain's Feliciano Lopez, the world No 31. The 18-year-old Queenslander's reward for the best win of his career is a meeting tomorrow with Rafael Nadal, the world No 1, who continued his attempt to become only the third man to hold all four Grand Slam titles when he beat Ryan Sweeting 6-2, 6-1, 6-1.
There are distinct similarities between the lives of Tomic and Jelena Dokic, a former world No 4 whose career has been dogged by controversy, mostly surrounding her troubled father. Dokic, born in Croatia to a Serbian father and Croatian mother, has had an occasionally tempestuous relationship with her adopted country.
Tomic is of Croatian stock, with a physical frame already starting to match those of giants from that part of the world like Ivan Ljubicic and Ivo Karlovic. After a recent growth spurt he is nudging 6ft 5in. Although not the quickest of movers around the court, he is a wonderful ball-striker who can hit a tennis ball in the apparently effortless way that David Gower used to strike a cricket ball.
His parents left their war-torn homeland for Germany, where Bernard was born, but settled in Australia when he was three. His outspoken father, John, drove taxis for a living but now coaches Bernard. At one stage the family upped sticks and moved to Nick Bollettieri's academy in Florida, but they were home within six months.
Tomic senior has had brushes with authority. He told his son to walk off court in the middle of one match after complaining that his opponent was not being foot-faulted, after which Bernard was suspended by the International Tennis Federation. He has also had public spats with some leading figures in Australian tennis, including Roger Rasheed, Lleyton Hewitt's former coach. Tomic senior called Rasheed a "fitness co-ordinator not a coach" who had taken Hewitt, who is Australia's only top 100 male player, "from No 2 in the world to No 60".
The relationship between the Hewitt and Tomic camps has not been good. At Wimbledon two summers ago Tomic was said to have snubbed the former champion by turning down his invitation to practise with him. Tomic's agent was reported to have said: "Lleyton's not good enough."
Tomic junior, who caused a stir at the French Open boys' tournament when he was accused of not trying, won the junior title here three years ago at the age of 15. Twelve months later he became the youngest male winner of a match at the Australian Open when he beat Potito Starace, the world No 73.
Last year Tomic again won a round here, beating France's Guillaume Rufin, before losing in five sets to Marin Cilic in a night match on the main show court. Afterwards he complained that, as a 17-year-old, he should not have had to be out so late. He said he was normally in bed by 9pm.
Tomic's appearances on the senior tour have been limited. Since Wimbledon he has played only five tournaments, while his win over Andreas Seppi at Queen's Club last summer is the only tour-level match he has won outside the Australian Open. In recent months he has worked hard on improving his strength and fitness.
Yesterday's match showed his talent and his ability to handle the big occasion. "I can't believe that I'm playing him," Tomic said as he looked ahead to facing Nadal. "It's a dream come true. I've got nothing to lose. I'm hitting the ball great. My confidence is up there, especially after two matches." Asked to describe his game, Tomic said: "I catch a lot of guys out with not a lot of power. My strengths are that I can find players' weaknesses really quickly. I can hit the ball hard, but I don't do it a lot of the time. That's not my game. I like to make players miss."
Tomic was the only Australian to make it to the second round of the men's singles. Hewitt fell to David Nalbandian at the first hurdle, while the four other home players also lost. Moreover, only one Australian, Greg Jones, reached the last round of qualifying and he did not go any further.
Australia's women players have been more successful, though two of the three in the world's top 100 are "imports", Jarmila Groth having come from Slovakia and Anastasia Rodionova from Russia. Nevertheless Sam Stosur, the world No 6 and a finalist at last year's French Open, is a regular contender for major honours.
For a great sporting nation that once produced a succession of champions, it is a sorry state of affairs. Much is resting on Tomic's shoulders.
Aussies behaving badly
The 19-year-old was fined AUS$14,000 (£8,700) and suspended by the ATP after racially abusing Raven Klaasen during a match, this was followed up with a six-month ban and a further US$10,000 (£6,300) fine after an investigation.
Has earned a reputation after several on-court outbursts including one incident in which he bounced his racket over a court fence and into the lap of an administrator. Has since decided to represent Sweden.
Similarly to Lindahl, has earned himself a reputation for bad behaviour following several misdemeanours including racquet smashing, swearing at officials and repeatedly questioning line calls.