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Michael Steinberger: Feel the Bern

Although the sun was shining, the grass shimmered in the light, and there was no shortage of good tennis, Tuesday was a tough day at Wimbledon. Five matches ended in retirements, including the two marquee matches on Centre Court, one featuring Roger Federer, the other Novak Djokovic. It appeared that most and perhaps all of the players who pulled out were nursing preexisting injuries and showed up simply to collect their paychecks (first-round losers at Wimbledon earned $45,000). Janko Tipsarevic spent just 15 minutes on court before announcing that he couldn’t go on.

Then there was Bernard Tomic. Unlike Tipsarevic, Tomic played his match to completion, losing in three sets to Mischa Zverev. But while he was there in body, he was definitely not there in spirit: the 24-year-old Australian exuded indifference and seemed to just want to get back to the locker room as quickly as he could. The real action came in the press conference following the match, a stream-of-consciousness unburdening in which Tomic admitted that he had been “a little bored” on court and was no longer concerned about his results (“I couldn’t care less if I make a fourth-round U.S. Open or I lose first round”) but also said that he planned to stick around the game for another decade or so, after which “I won’t have to work again.”

The problem highlighted by Tipsarevic and the other retirees seems like one that can be easily resolved. In fact, the ATP just came up with a smart rule change for the tournaments that it administers. If a player who has been accepted into the main draw is nursing an injury, he can now withdraw just prior to his first match and still collect his prize money. His place will be given to a lucky loser from the qualifying rounds. The injured player gets a paycheck, the fans get a real match—it is a win-win solution, and one that ought to be adopted by the four grand slam events.

By contrast, the Tomic problem is not so easily fixed. The reaction from much of the tennis commentariat to both his desultory performance against Zverev and to the comments he made afterwards was essentially: Off with his head. “It’s disrespectful to the sport and disrespectful to the history of the sport,” said Tennis Channel’s Martina Navratilova. “If you can’t get motivated at Wimbledon, it’s time to find another job.” Speaking to the BBC but aiming her spite directly at her fellow Australian, Renee Stubbs said of Tomic, “You’re an embarrassment to yourself, and not only to the sport but to Australian tennis.” And, of course, what Stubbs and Navratilova said was mild compared to the invective hurled at Tomic on social media.

On Thursday, the International Tennis Federation fined Tomic $15,000 for what it called “unsportsmanlike conduct”, and Head announced that it was ending its sponsorship deal with him.

I certainly understand why there isn’t much empathy for Tomic. As a general proposition, people who get paid millions of dollars for playing a sport don’t have much purchase on our sympathy, and with his long history of doing and saying stupid things, Tomic has not exactly made himself a sympathetic figure. And as another general proposition, if you are going to take the court and take the money—at Wimbledon or any other tournament—you do have an obligation to the fans to make a sincere effort. As Navratilova put it, “The spectators paid good money to come here and watch Wimbledon and [Tomic] shows up and doesn’t try, he can’t be bothered. Just stay at home.”

Still. Maybe I’m getting soft in my old age, maybe I’m misreading the situation, but what I saw and heard at that press conference wasn’t an immature punk but a lost kid in need of help. If you are at all familiar with Tomic’s story—the tyrannical father who essentially made him a prisoner of the tennis court and whose loutishness has been a constant distraction (most notoriously when he head-butted his son’s hitting partner a few years ago; he was later found guilty of assault by a Spanish court)—what happened the other day at Wimbledon shouldn’t have come as a surprise. Tomic has been a slow-motion train wreck for years. He’s had some success, and even cracked the top 20, but the low points have vastly outnumbered the high ones. He’s had run-ins with tennis officials and with law enforcement. He’s thrown matches. He’s given every indication that he doesn’t enjoy being a professional tennis player and doesn’t want to be one. On Tuesday, he said as much.

Tennis is a beautiful game but also such a harsh one. The pressure is unrelenting and often excruciating. Matches hinge on a point here and a point there; a career can turn on a single groundstroke or volley. The pressure to meet expectations; to attract or keep sponsors; to justify the sacrifices made by one’s family—it has to be overwhelming at times. It is kind of amazing, when you think about it, that we don’t see more players suffering emotional breakdowns, that there aren’t more troubled characters in the game. Maybe there are but they just do a better job of hiding it. Mental health is the last taboo in pro sports, and you could see that in the response to the Tomic mess: amid all the opprobrium, no one wanted to acknowledge what seemed obvious—that he is wrestling with some issues and could probably benefit from counseling.

Tomic is now learning that when you blatantly make no effort in a match on tennis’s grandest stage, the penalties are going to be draconian, as they should be. But given what we saw from him on Tuesday, and given what we know of him, I’m not sure the moral judgments needed to be quite so severe. Tomic is living a life that was chosen for him, it doesn’t seem to be the life he wants, and it also appears that he’s ill-equipped to handle its rigors. He doesn’t invite sympathy, but it’s okay to feel some sympathy for him anyway.

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