The Homecoming Queen
By Linda Pearce
December 6, 2005
JUST over two months ago, Australian Open chief executive Paul McNamee was sitting in his office at Melbourne Park when he was told he had a telephone call. Jelena Dokic was on the line from Europe. "Really?" was his initial response, for the contact was unexpected, if not certainly not unwelcome.
McNamee had every right to be wary, not merely surprised, for he had been through all this before. Two years earlier, Dokic's return to Australia had been negotiated through her US agent, down to the coaching assistance requested as part of Tennis Australia's dutiful smoothing of her re-entry.
Back then, circumstances were very different. Dokic was a top-20 player with a stable of sponsors and considerable bargaining power. What she ultimately did not have was a stomach for the hostile reception she feared she would receive in the country that had been her home from 1994 until the acrimonious departure insisted upon by her father, Damir, seven years later.
"She was too scared. She just couldn't face it," McNamee said yesterday of the aborted 2003 homecoming. Dokic, too, admits she was "a little bit afraid" of how she would be treated, and what would be made of the draw-rigging allegations and generally preposterous behaviour of her tyrannical father.
Fast forward two years. The call Dokic made to McNamee in October was a simple request to come back. No agents involved; no conditions imposed.
"She just said, 'I want to come back and put Australia next to my name, and what do you reckon, how can we do it?' " McNamee recalled yesterday. "I said, 'Well, I know how hard it is for you to make this phone call, but we stand as we always have: the door's always been open, and we'll do what we can to help.'
"But it was kind of a gutsy call for her to make. When she left here, it was fierce, just fierce, and I can understand why she was very nervous coming back here, yeah."
Dokic, 22, flew into Tullamarine from Vienna on Saturday, accompanied by her boyfriend, Tino Bikic, a nervous smile and a world ranking that has sunk to 349th.
The sponsors are gone and she is between coaches. Other than a Canberra wildcard next month and an invitation to attend the annual Australian Open training camp, starting today, Dokic has asked for nothing, and Tennis Australia has made no promises.
At the airport, she declined an offer to be spirited away through a private exit, choosing to face the media, to explain and apologise, in the arrivals hall. The women's magazines and so-called current affairs shows have been relentless in their pursuit of "exclusive" interviews in the past week, but Dokic has been adamant that she will say what she has to say to everyone.
Yesterday, while Bikic — the Croatian son of her former coach, Borno Bikic — remained inside, she negotiated a carefully managed appearance at Melbourne Park, speaking on an outside court until every question had been answered and then hitting with Victorian Lauren Breadmore in what was Dokic's first touch of Rebound Ace in almost five years.
Again, without her now-estranged father pulling the strings, Dokic managed to say all the right things. She had spent her first day eating Tim Tams. "I missed that, I missed a lot of things." She was "even more glad now" to be back, and thankful for the support she had already received. She is here to make up for what went on before.
"I was 16 at the time," she said. "Even now at 22, I don't know much about life — a little bit more than then, but that's why I came back. I want the people to understand what happened and hopefully I will get that message across. I felt Australian then, I still do, and I want to play for Australia again, and I think I deserve that.
"I really regret the way that I left. Hopefully, they can understand me and what happened, and that I'm making this decision now, I'm looking forward, not going back to what happened, and hopefully they can start to love me again like they did before."
Dokic said she had delayed her return because the hysteria of her departure — she announced on the eve of the Open that she would play for Serbia and Montenegro, the day after her father told The Age that the draw again had been rigged against her — was still too fresh.
"I left in quite a bad way and I just wasn't sure when to come back," she said. "I am expecting people that will not agree with me and understand my situation, but that is OK, I'm here to earn the respect again from players, tennis-wise, and from the people as well.
"It was not my decision at the time, and I want the people to understand that this is my decision now and I would like to look forward.
"I would really like to make up for that, play for Australia, be Australian and get my career back on track."
A career that, right now, is floundering. A low ranking born of injuries, poor form and her annual Australian circuit boycott sent her back to the Challenger circuit midyear as her ranking went into freefall. No one doubts that the former Wimbledon semi-finalist can still hit the ball, and her work ethic and ambition were once legendary, but has the game passed her by?
"I don't think it has," says her former coach and mentor Lesley Bowrey, who was a roommate and second mother to Dokic during her late-teenage years and remains fondly supportive. Bowrey predicts a return to the top 10 "if Jelena gets her head right and gets the right people around her".
That, obviously, does not include Damir, who is back in Belgrade hailing the end of Jelena's career. Or so he told reporters, for father and daughter have not spoken for some time.
"I don't talk to him at all," Dokic said. "We have very different views on pretty much everything in life, and that includes tennis, and that includes this decision to come back … He's my father, he's family, but we don't agree on those things, and that includes my career, so when it's that way you just can't work with that kind of person."
Dokic remains officially based in Monte Carlo, but has rented an apartment in Melbourne for the summer and will then consider her options. She is in occasional contact with her mother, Liliana, and brother, Savo, but apparently does not fear for their wellbeing. "Obviously, they made their choice as well, and I made mine."
It is a choice that is both brave, in its way, and smacking a little of desperation. Australia was the foundation for Dokic's success and appealed as a logical next stop on her troubled journey, but, realistically, her options were few.
"I think all the pressure that I had on me I dealt with at the time, and then later, it took its toll," she admits.
"The last two years I've been out, and also I did so much early on, so maybe I needed that break, and I'm really motivated again. It's a lot harder to come back than to come up. But if I can do it, I think I'll be a stronger person and a player."
Indeed, the former world No. 4 claims to have been inspired by the comeback efforts of Mary Pierce, another to have escaped from a dysfunctional home and abusive father and found personal peace and a professional second wind. So far, the signs are good. Dokic appears to insiders to be more relaxed and carefree, less tense and anxious than in the past.
McNamee warns that on-court expectations should reflect the distance she has fallen, but admits she is in slightly better physical shape than he had expected after her long lay-off. He hopes she will be received with support and understanding by the Australian public, but knows that everyone will make their own decision.
Which is, indeed, precisely what Dokic has done. Having made the momentous move away from her father, more than two years of agonising have ended with her return to the country she acknowledges she should never have left.
Except that, of course, it will not end there, for there are surely a few more twists still to come. The consensus among her former coaches Bowrey and Craig Miller is that, with Damir out of the picture, her future is bright; what is beyond dispute is that this has been a long and troubling human drama, with Jelena Dokic its reluctant star.