Tomic rallies to the Aussie cause

Sixteen-year-old Croat is answering call to become the next Lleyton Hewitt, writes Paul Newman

Sit opposite Bernard Tomic and it is hard to believe you are talking to a boy not long past his 16th birthday. His 6ft 4in frame fills the chair and his long legs spill out from underneath the table as he talks in a matter-of-fact manner about fame.

"I was sitting in a train station about six months ago and this guy was looking at a newspaper which had a photograph of me on the front," Tomic said. "He kept looking at the paper and looking at me. He couldn't really decide for about 10 minutes whether it was me. Then he came over and asked me and I told him it was me."

How does it feel to be recognised like that? "It's weird but it's also nice," he said. "It's a good feeling to have."

Tomic, the best player in the world in his age group, became the youngest male to win a Grand Slam junior tennis title with success at his home tournament, the Australian Open, 13 months ago. One year later, the beach boy from Queensland's Gold Coast practised with Rafael Nadal at Melbourne Park and was hailed as one for the future when he became the youngest male winner of a match at the Australian Open, beating Potito Starace, the world No 73.

For someone who admits he is normally asleep by 9pm, it was perhaps no surprise when he lost to Gilles Muller in the second round having gone on court after 10pm as the night's main attraction in Rod Laver Arena, his billing a reflection of Australia's desperation to find a successor to Lleyton Hewitt.

Tomic's fame has yet to spread much beyond his home country, but his talent has long been recognised. The only boy to win the under-12, under-14 and under-16 trophies at the prestigious Orange Bowl in Miami, he has been under the wing of the International Management Group since he was 12, and already has significant commercial contracts.

Team Tomic believe the time is now right to take on the men. In the coming weeks his family are likely to relocate either to London or to Nick Bollettieri's academy in Florida as Bernard embarks on a programme of Challenger and Futures tournaments, the levels immediately below the main ATP tour.

Choosing when to join the big time is always a major decision. Donald Young, another outstanding junior, was thrown on to the senior stage at 15 only to suffer a succession of crushing defeats. Now aged 19, the American is struggling at No 133 in the world rankings. Andy Murray, in contrast, did not make his ATP debut until he was nearly 18. He was world No 4 within three-and-a-half years.

Tomic could accept wild cards into some bigger events – there is already talk of his playing in Miami next month – though his entourage want him to take one step at a time. "We know he has a couple of areas of his game that he has to improve and we don't want to throw him to the wolves before he's ready," said Lawrence Frankopan,his agent.

As a growing teenager Tomic's movement can seem cumbersome, but there are few doubts about his ball-striking ability. Last month Pat Cash said he had "a backhand down the line that's about as good as you ever see on the circuit".

While recognising the areas in which he needs to improve, Tomic himself is not short of confidence. "I can play like a top-10 player if the ball's coming at me," he said. "It's just the movement I'm lacking. If I had the movement of a [Novak] Djokovic I reckon I could be up there right now, but there's not too much I can expect at 16."

He did not start playing until his father bought him a 50-cent racket when he was seven. "I've been looking at statistics," Tomic said. "A lot of players play from about two years old and start achieving at 18. I reckon I've played less tennis than any of these guys. I've only played about eight years of tennis. Maybe if I'd started playing when I was two or three, who knows? I would have had the confidence of an extra four or five years behind me."

Tomic is of Croatian stock, with a physical frame already starting to match those of giant compatriots such as Mario Ancic, Goran Ivanisevic and Ivo Karlovic. His parents initially left their war-torn homeland for Germany, where Bernard was born, but settled in Australia when he was three.

His father drove taxis for a living at first but now coaches Bernard and his 10-year-old sister, Sara, another rising talent. John Tomic is a controversial figure and has had regular brushes with authority. In Perth in December, he told his son to walk off court in the middle of a match after complaining that his opponent was not being foot-faulted. The International TennisFederation are still investigatingthe incident.

Hewitt's former coach Roger Rasheed, who now works with Gaël Monfils, said recently that Tennis Australia should consider cutting ties with the Tomics if problems continued. John Tomic responded by calling Rasheed a "fitness co-ordinator, not a coach", who had taken Hewitt "from No 2 in the world to No 60". He added: "I think that Gaël Monfils should be very careful, because he could find himself struggling too pretty soon."

Comparisons with Jelena Dokic, who was born in Croatia of Serbian parents before moving with her family to Australia, are inevitable. Dokic, who is rebuilding her career, is now estranged from her father, Damir, who clashed regularly with officialdom.

But Frankopan insists that John Tomic is "misunderstood", explaining: "Because of the language barrier he sometimes presents things in what educated people would regard as an aggressive way, but if you understand the world where he comes from in Croatia and the Balkans, where it's a case of eat or be eaten, it's just the way it is. He's actually a lovely guy."

Bernard is equally defensive of his father. "He's helped me a lot," he said. "It's going to be tough in the next few years. There will be a lot of areasand benefits and there will alwaysbe mistakes to deal with. Everyone makes mistakes."

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