Alastair Grant/AP Images

Bernard Tomic could have hypothetically—very hypothetically—spent a healthy career lurking in the top 15, upending the greats every so often. It is not especially hard to envision this alternate timeline. The 24-year-old Australian had the raw talent for it: He is 6-foot-5 and a little lumbering but compensates with a beguiling game, full of pace-changing junk ball and suave touch shots. The forehand slice, that rare tennis specimen, is a close friend. But tennis in general is not Tomic’s friend, has not been for a long time, and amid this 9-15 season, he is ranked No. 73, a world away from his career high of No. 17 early last year. Recent exploits earned him the nickname “Tomic the Tank Engine.”

He has moved around the court like it’s wet concrete; he has hacked at the ball aimlessly; he has held his racket backwards in the middle of a point. After tanking away his first match at Wimbledon, Tomic told reporters that he “felt a little bit bored, to be completely honest with you,” and that he had called for a trainer not because he was injured, but because he wanted to disrupt his opponent’s momentum. Tomic earned $45,000 for this first-round (dis)appearance, tempered by a $15,000 fine for unsportsmanlike conduct—you can’t fake medical timeouts in bad faith—and the loss of his Head racket sponsorship just hours later.

Advertisement

For all his flaws he could never be faulted for a lack of honesty. Yesterday in a segment on Australian program Sunday Night, Tomic elaborated on the motivations behind his tanking:

In case you can’t see that:

I don’t tank, I just get disappointed in myself and very angry, and I forget about what the score is, I forget about who I’m playing, and I think about different things, even though I’m on the tennis court.

Tanking is often thought of as the intentional choice to give up on wins that you do at some level desire, but currently no longer want to attain. Maybe because it will somehow put set you up for a brighter, if ever-receding future. Maybe because this particular match seems beyond hope and it’s not worth expending the energy. Tanking is an an isolated, discrete decision to give up on this one; presumably, somewhere along the line, you’ll go back to caring about the next one.

Advertisement

With Tomic it feels more like victories are the occasional bright aberration against an enormous backdrop of apathy. There is no next one to care about. In his telling, tanking is not some kind of calculated case-by-case decision, but a general emotional response to being trapped in a career that chose him very early in life—he turned pro at 16—and left him with no other options. After all, first-round payouts at Grand Slams are still big sums, even if you have no ambition of lingering into the second week. “My position, I’m trapped. I have to do it,” he said of his career. “I didn’t come from a rich family. We had no money. And now ... living in all these lavish houses and property around the world, it’s my choice. It’s something that I’ve worked for.” He is hitting on something real here. Few of us are trapped by the talents we happened to flash as a child. Few of us have to make a living trotting out those talents in public, years after any joy has been wrung out of it. Most of us are free to have to live out our mediocrity in private, under the scrutiny of supervisors and no one else.

To fulfill his brand promise, though, Tomic has balanced out any accidental pathos with a steady drip of bitterness. To his detractors, he said, after the Wimbledon fine: “End of the day, don’t like me or whatever. Just go back dreaming about your dream car or house while I go buy them.” To his fans, he said, last night: “Don’t come ... Just watch on TV, you don’t have to pay anything.” After admitting that he had averaged a 50 percent effort level over the course of his career, he had this bit of hilariously cynical self-congratulation to add: “I haven’t really tried, and [still] achieved all this. So it’s just amazing what I’ve done.” And it is a little bit amazing.

Tomic offers a case study: how far can you get in a game where there is no support role to recede into, where you are the sole star and only shaper of your fate, but also, you are totally indifferent to winning? What happens to an elite athlete after he’s stripped of all the pathological motivation and self-belief that that level of sport seemingly demands? He ends up a laborer with a highly specialized skill set, collecting paychecks.

Advertisement

What would be genuinely “amazing” is if that laborer still held out secret ambitions and conspired to achieve them. Tomic might have said he would have told his 14-year-old self to avoid the sport altogether: “Don’t play tennis. Do something you love and enjoy, because it’s a grind, and it’s a tough, tough, tough life.” And by his own admission he is not a happy person. But still, despite finding no happiness in his vocation, he thinks that its single highest achievement could somehow ambush him with the feeling that has thus far evaded him: “If I ever get the chance to win a Grand Slam, maybe only then I can truly feel the feeling of being really, really happy.” When you see Tomic holding out on that hope, it’s hard to read it as anything but optimism, though a very sickly strain of it.