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From problem child to next big thing
The West Australian From problem child to next big thing

John Tomic was a pretty handy soccer player and coach during his salad days in Croatia. His son Bernard was displaying some of the same skills with the round ball around the family apartment on the Gold Coast after they migrated to Australia 15 years ago.

They didn't know anything about tennis. But when Tomic was seven, his father paid 50ยข for an old wooden Slazenger racquet at a garage sale. The boy belted a few balls against a wall around their apartment, whacked a few kids on court and Australia's next big thing was born.

Tomic stormed through the world's junior ranks, becoming the youngest Australian Open junior champion and winning a US Open junior title.

Tonight he plays his biggest ever match - against world No.2 Novak Djokovic at Wimbledon. At just 18, he is the youngest quarterfinalist since 1986 when Boris Becker was the same age.

Heady stuff indeed. And he has Australian tennis fans gushing about the long lost days of Laver, Newcombe, Roche, et al.

It's not that the game has disappeared off the island continent's map, because we have had players such as Lleyton Hewitt winning grand slams.

But the young Queenslander might just be somebody the fans can love.

It wasn't always so. His father has always been his coach and ordered him off the court during a futures challenge in Perth in December 2008, earning his son a one-month ban. John later apologised for accusing officials of rigging the draw.

Then there's Hewitt. They would have played each other in the third round if Hewitt had beaten world No.5 Robin Soderling in the second round. Instead, Tomic dispatched the Swede and his ranking is set to jump from 158 into the 70s next Monday as he becomes Australia's new No.1. In 2008, the Tomic camp rejected a practice session with Hewitt during Wimbledon, young Tomic reportedly saying "Lleyton's not good enough". The relationship was still festering last year and it's unclear if the bad blood has clotted into a minor scab though Tomic appears to be conciliatory.

"I haven't seen him around. I would love to have the chance to talk to him, but unfortunately we didn't get the time to bump into each other here," Tomic said.

After a blow-up with Tennis Australia after Tomic lost in the second round of the Australian Open last year, John Tomic threatened to move to Croatia and join their Davis Cup team.

Tennis officials must be breathing a sigh of relief now that Tomic is a winner, and an Australian one at that.

Hewitt has always been admired for his battling, scrapping, never-say-die tennis. But his shifting temper hasn't always seen him loved.

Tomic, on the other hand, has all the natural ability and as he grows into manhood seems more composed and agreeable.

He even has new Davis Cup captain Pat Rafter on side, along with Tony Roche, as team Australia becomes a more settled environment.

Rafter has been in the player's box this tournament and Roche has been asked for advice.

"We are on the same wavelength, which is really important," Rafter says of his dealings with John Tomic, who once drove taxis to make ends meet as he coached his son.

But don't expect Tomic to grab all the headlines. His younger sister Sara is waiting in the tramlines.

At a similar stage of their junior development, John Tomic said: "She definitely has a bit more talent than Bernard. I think she will have the best volley in the world for a girl."

And that spells danger for tennis hopefuls because if Bernard don't get you, Sara just might.