Motherhood mellows Evie Dominikovic (article inside)
The once-temperamental Evie Dominikovic is back on the circuit with a new son and a new perspective on tennis, writes Linda Pearce.
WHEN Evie Dominikovic's doctor confirmed that the weird feeling in her belly was not, in fact, a recurring Asian stomach bug, her reaction was part joy, part trepidation. How to tell her strict Croatian-born parents that their unmarried 25-year-old daughter and her partner, Joe Ivisic, were expecting their first child?
Dominikovic held off for many months, wearing baggy clothes to hide her welcome but nevertheless unplanned bulge. Eventually, at the end of one of Anna Dominikovic's visits to Melbourne from the family home in Sydney, Evie chose a safe time and place to deliver the news that motherhood would be the next assignment for Australia's third-ranked woman tennis player.
"It was five months into my pregnancy before I told Mum, and I had a big shirt hiding my belly, and I made sure I did it in a shopping centre so she couldn't tell me off, and she was flying out of Melbourne about two hours later, so I thought, 'This is the perfect opportunity'," Dominikovic recalls, laughing.
"But she was pretty happy. She was like, 'Oh, that's great, you know, I'm really happy'. And then she was like, 'Are you getting married?' I wanted to, but Joe thought it was too rushed, and he wanted a proper wedding, so it will be weird having the little one there when we get married, but it'll be fun."
The wedding will come some time next year, Ivisic's proposal coming on Dominikovic's 26th birthday — the first she has not spent in Paris since touring life began in her mid-teens — and only two days before the birth of Xavier, now 19 weeks old and making his Challenger circuit debut at this week's Kia International in Traralgon.
Now unranked, Dominikovic made her return through qualifying, and won two matches before running out of puff in the third against No. 2 seed Karolina Wlodarczak on Monday. And, having peaked at No. 64 in the world, and still at 118th when last she competed, it is fair to say that the baseliner who once played world No. 1 Jennifer Capriati on centre court in the third round at Roland Garros and twice reached the last 32 at the Australian Open made her comeback in far less glamorous surrounds.
Dominikovic, who will play doubles this week and then follow the circuit back to Melbourne Park, is accompanied by her mother and sister, Daniella — a promising 19-year-old ranked in the mid-400s who is also pursuing a part-time modelling career and recently won a round of the Miss Australia quest — for childcare and moral support. Evie's hopes — wisely — are modest, but the change in the once-temperamental and sometimes angry young thing is already profound.
"The pregnancy kind of came at a good time because I wasn't enjoying travelling at the time and after nine or 10 years, I wanted a little break from tennis, anyway," Evie said. "I did miss it when Aussie Open was on, and then I thought, 'I could be at the French', but I really enjoyed staying home and being home for a year.
"Now I look at tennis totally differently; it's not a priority any more. Where before it was like, 'I've got to go and train for five hours, I've got to go and do the fitness', and I used to fight and not play my game, now I'm relaxed and having fun — and I'm hitting the ball a lot better than I was before! So hopefully, I'll just take that out on the court."
Dominikovic still harbours top-hundred ambitions, while aware that Austria's world No. 45 Sybille Bammer is the top-ranked of the few mothers competing on the WTA Tour. From previous generations, Australians Margaret Court, Evonne Goolagong Cawley and Liz Smylie all played some outstanding tennis after maternity leave — although the first two, at least, were obviously in a far different class beforehand.
Still, Dominikovic never thought she had left tennis behind for good and there have been few Australians surging forward in her absence. Indeed, Dominikovic's immediate pre-baby status would still rank her at No. 3 locally behind Sam Stosur and a revived Nicole Pratt.
She has kept in touch with her peers through emails and text messages, and regularly scans the internet for results and updates. "The girls were pretty happy for me, but they couldn't believe it that I was having a baby; they're like, 'Evie's going to be a mum!' But it's amazing how you change so much. I wouldn't say I've been really, like, mature, before the baby, still having my fun, but I guess you have to (mature) when you have a little one."
Dominikovic returned to the practice court under coach Matt O'Brien when Xavier was two months old, and hits for up to two hours each weekday in a program augmented by regular runs around the streets of outer suburban Point Cook with Joe and the jogging pram. She has only a couple of kilos of her baby weight to lose, but, perhaps more significantly, other attributes to regain.
"I've totally lost my movement," she admits. "Before, I wasn't that quick but I used to scramble for everything; now I'm very slow reacting, very slow. My brain's just not really working well with my feet at the moment, but I feel pretty fit; it's not like I'm puffing away on the court, and I know if I really put in a lot of effort, I can get it back."
Nor is Dominikovic concerned that her competitive edge has been dulled by all this newfound perspective; that her appetite for motherhood has sated the necessary hunger for victory. She has returned to tennis to see where it takes her and for as long as she enjoys it, more content with her life.
"Obviously, I'm still going to take my matches seriously and fight for every point, but I won't be harsh on myself if I lose a tennis match like I was before," she says. "I'd get pretty upset because it was pretty much me and tennis … whereas now it's Xavier, myself and Joe."