No Country for Young Men

By Anand Mamidipudi

This is the tale of two Aussies. They play tennis. Sometimes. At other times, they play mind tricks. They mess with our fragile loyalty, with their own immense potential, with tradition, with how things are meant to be in our world of warped justice.

This is the tale of two Aussies. They are prodigies. They are temperamental. They are gifted. They don’t give a shit really. They are ultimately two mates who have so much in common except their fates. This is the tale of Bernard Tomic and Nick Kyrgios, one destined to be a glorious chump, the other marked for greatness. The fact is, we will never know which one is which, because just as they beguile your senses with their ethereal brilliance, they will also befuddle you with their indifference.

Tomic’s father, John, is from Croatia, the land of the famously moody Goran Ivanisevic. He brought Bernie to the shores of Australia at the tiny age of 3. He put a racket in the hands of his little boy and bade him to play with the heart of Hewitt, the mind of Sampras, the range of Federer and the power of Ivanisevic. John didn’t just tell Bernie this, he seared it into his mind with a rod dipped in hot lava. Bernie did not have a normal childhood (who does?) because of his Dad but he also did not have normal results. Bernie, with his young Cadillac smooth groundstrokes, began to destroy every opponent and won two junior Slams and three Orange Bowls before he turned 18. At 19, he was the youngest quarter-finalist at Wimbledon since Boris Becker. Legends of the sport went into raptures describing the potential of young Tomic.

Kyrgios’ father, Giorgos, is from Greece and his mother, Norlailla, is from Malaysia. Together these immigrants concocted the perfect tennis talent in Nick. Young Nick reluctantly picked tennis over his first love, basketball, and soon began to boss over all other boys in his age group. As he trampled upon the field at the junior Australian Open, the world gushed about his transcendental talent. It was like watching a sneak preview of the next great player in tennis, one who would vanquish all comers, who would change the way the sport is played.

This is the tale of Bernie and Nick, two meteors shooting through the midnight sky, while the world gawps at their brilliance and yet wonders whether they will crash and burn. This is their gift and their curse. They have been picked to succeed and still presumed to fail. The truth is, they have done neither, and in all likelihood will turn out to be heroes in the end.

In the tennis world of the Big Four, and the next gen comprising of the likes of Zverev, Coric, Chung and Fritz, nobody confounds our senses like Bernie and Nick. After a decade of being pampered by the likes of Roger, Rafa, Djokovic and Murray, we’re anxious about whether such riches will be found in this sport ever again. When we watch Bernie and Nick, our hopes are raised in a vacuum, because we see in their games the sort of generational talent that draw legions of fans. None of that hope has transpired into reality yet because we have come to realize that their outrageous talent is couched in rebellion, like it has with many players past.

Tomic, gifted with arguably the greatest ball sense of any player in his generation, is also the more flawed and vulnerable player of these two. His testy relationship with his father and rejection of mainstream coaching comes in the way of realizing his full potential. In pure tennis terms, he is a limited mover, and his fitness and shot selection are questionable. Most importantly, he periodically checks out of important matches and consistently seems to lack the singular ambition and drive that defines great champions. While he is young, and can hold his own against anyone not in the big 4, there’s an increasing sense that he has peaked already because he won’t will himself to greater summits.

On the other hand, young Kyrgios is only just starting out. At 21, he has already beaten three of the greatest players of all time and has broken into the top 20. His win against Djokovic this week was a belligerent war cry that resonated across the tennis world. The challenge for Nick is to find a way to channel his limitless potential into consistent results (he lost to journeyman Sam Querrey in the next round). Tennis has seen many such volatile talents like Nastase, McEnroe, Safin and Agassi. They all succeeded because they ultimately found out that the elixir of success was only available to those who cared about winning and worked hard for it. Nick beginning his journey of self-discovery. In rallying with Djokovic from the baseline, Nick displayed hitherto unseen patience in waiting for the right moment to take over the match. Notably he won the longest point of the match when the mighty Djokovic lost concentration before Nick did.

Nick’s shot-making talent rivals some of the all-time greats and his full arsenal, including what could become one of the greatest serves in history, was on display against Djokovic. The match revealed to all why we have judged Nick harshly, for he is only 21, an age at which Roger Federer was still getting his feet wet. Nick is already well-positioned to use his effortless power to make deep runs at the big tournaments. On the other side, Bernie’s main challenge would be to take the sport seriously enough to work on his shortcomings  like a weak second serve and inferior movement at this level. Winning a slam is not beyond Bernie after the Big 4 finally retire into the sunset.

What is really at contention is the attitude of both players. They have exhibited poor judgment in their words, belittled their sport, tanked matches, made crude gestures. In short, they have behaved like immature teenage brats in their short careers. Whether this is a growing up phase – in Bernie’s case all the more complicated by a father who behaves even worse than he – or simply the attributes that hold them back from greatness remains to be seen. The media scrutiny and more vociferous global fan base will not help. It is a fascinating study of how two young players from immigrant families tease and torment both with their games and personalities. Tennis has never lacked out-sized egos. In an interview on Tennis with an Accent, two-time Australian Open champion Johan Kriek said, “there wasn’t a football stadium big enough to hold the egos of” the likes of McEnroe and Connors. Still one could see how these enormous egos contributed to extraordinary results.

This is the tale of two young gladiators, Nick and Bernie, unfolding in front of a global audience. Will they harness their otherworldly talents and rule the sport or will they simply wither away into oblivion as wasted talents? This is the tale that is looking for an ending and there might be more than one in the coming years.

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