Fresh from his latest disappointment on the court, Bernard Tomic served up the type of quote laden press conference that Journalists and pundits dream of. However, in the scramble to condemn Tomic, have they too displayed the same lackadaisical approach to their craft that he stands accused of?
Bernard Tomic’s journey from phenom to pariah has been as fast as any serve he has mustered on centre court. As a youngster, Tomic’s story was one to be celebrated. Soon after he and his family immigrated to Australia he learned to play tennis with a racquet his father bought from a garage sale for a meagre 50 cents, and a promising career was born. As an adult Bernard Tomic’s public persona has drawn the type ire and derision usually synonymous with villainous pro wrestlers, not tennis players. Mercilessly criticised for his failure to apply himself on the court, and his inability to behave himself off it, Tomic’s adversarial relationship with the press came to a head after another disappointing first round exit at Wimbledon:
Swivelling back and forth in his chair like a delinquent child summoned to the principal’s office to be reprimanded for his most recent bout of bad behaviour, Bernie (as he is patronisingly referred to in the media) burps up one half baked explanation for his poor performance after another. He fields questions from the press and apathetically swats them away in a manner akin to the effort he had just displayed on the tennis court. Viewed through the lens of everything we already know about Tomic, the press conference fits perfectly into the narrative that precedes him everywhere he goes. He is arrogant, self entitled, and has no respect for the game that has given him so much. The response to the press conference was a cacophony of detestation. Officials fined him, Sponsors dumped him, and even Tomic’s own father admitted the he was ‘ashamed’ of his behaviour. Amidst this overwhelming flurry of distaste, is it possible that pertinent points about society and human nature were overlooked?
The video above begins with a journalist asking Tomic if he has thought of donating the $64,000 he earned for participating in the tournament to charity. Tomic responds defensively by asking if Roger Federer would be willing to do the same thing. He then goes on to state that “we all work for money; at 34 maybe I can donate to charity” and in response to a later question surmises that “I know I’m going to play another ten years, and I know after my career I won’t have to work again”. Delivered with indifference and sniggers, it is easy to understand how infuriating these comments can be to fans and legends of the game alike. On closer inspection, isn’t Tomic merely adhering to mantra repeated to many young people as they begin their adult lives? The primacy of financial security is impressed upon young people by parents and teachers, often at the expense of ideals such as job satisfaction or fulfilment. The corridors of society are filled with people searching for the illusive nexus between satisfaction and security. The fundamental difference between Tomic and his less famous contemporaries is that the latter’s frustrations are mumbled under ones breath or confided to a close friend, while the former has to front up to a press conference broadcast around the world.
The second point that Bernard attempts to convey during the press conference is that while there are many players who will have much better careers than him, unlike them, he has the capability to win a Grand Slam. Even in the face of defeat he has the temerity to imply that he is somehow better than those that remain in the tournament. While this could easily be interpreted as the latest example of Tomic’s arrogance, it is possible there is a more human explanation. The English idiom “Sour Grapes” is a reference to the Fable at its genesis —The Fox and the Grapes. Unable to reach a bunch of grapes hanging high above him, the fox abandons the pursuit, reasoning that the grapes ‘aren’t even ripe yet! I don’t need any sour grapes’. Rather than admit his failure, the fox rationalises his defeat. For Tomic the metaphorical grapes are a Grand Slam. By failing to apply himself on the court, he is avoiding the possibility that his best is not good enough. Scientifically this is referred to as reducing dissonance. When Bernie doesn’t try on the court, he is able to continue to live in a world where Grand Slam success is still hypothetically possible, if only he were to apply himself. Stanford professor Carol Dweck’s research in this field produced what she refers to as the “Growth Mindset”. She contends that children who are praised for innate ability or talent fixate on performance and shy away from taking risks that may result in failure, while those who are praised for their effort develop a mindset for sustained growth. In other words, Tomic takes an early shower while players like Rafael Nadal torture themselves on centre court, wringing every last ounce effort out of their bodies - even when it is not enough to prevail.
All of this is not to say that Bernard Tomic’s comments don’t deserve criticism. The lack of professionalism that he often displays on court and in his post match obligations is emblematic of a lack of respect for those he plays against, trains with, and is paid by. However, when journalists and pundits fail to acknowledge the nuances in a given narrative they close off avenues to greater understanding. By perpetuating a binary narrative in which everything a player does is either good or bad, they risk inadvertently telling their readers that being unsatisfied by your job or afraid of failure makes them bad too. Players such as Roger Federer will always be better role models for young people but those whose human frailties are more visible should be admired too. Presenting narratives in this manner in sports is a relatively low stakes undertaking, but applying the same approach to reporting stories of greater importance can be damaging. In 2016, the Orlando nightclub shooting in which 50 people were killed became a story about islamic terrorism despite the perpetrator’s tenuous links to ISIS. By funnelling the story through the established narrative, the media gave the public the explanation they craved, but missed an opportunity to open dialogue on equally important societal problems such as mental health or gun control laws. Journalism is still primarily a commercial pursuit and Journalists have a fiscal incentive to write articles that engage their readership. When the Rolling Stones play a concert the crowd expects them to play their hits, but it may be a previously unheard song has the biggest impact on the crowd. Similarly, Journalists should write the articles that people want to read, but they should also present alternative narratives that may help their readers see the world in a new light. By attaching every story to existing narratives Journalists are grabbing the low hanging fruit. Like Bernard Tomic, they too need to reach up higher where the grapes are.