Long interview, but they read AO draw wrong about her 1st rnd opponent
Dokic embarks on long road back to a better life without dad
Saturday January 14, 2006
There are very few players who have crammed so many changes into such a short time as Jelena Dokic. She has been Australian, then Serbian, then Australian again; she has been a prodigy and a has-been; and now, most crucially, thanks to her decision to break away from her father Damir, she has gone from being oppressed to being her own woman at last at the age of 22.
Speaking in between practice sessions ahead of what will be her first Australian Open in five years, she takes a deep breath when her father's name is mentioned. But then you can hardly blame her. This is the man, after all, whose behaviour at tournaments was so vile that he was banned from the women's tour for six months and whose daughter was once so concerned at the thought of him being around that she asked a tournament not to accredit him.
She has never publicly accused him of abuse but the rumours persisted and at the very least his frequent outbursts about everything from lesbians in the locker room to the price of fish in the players' restaurant at the US Open - the "threatening" nature of the latter complaint is what finally got him banned - proved a constant distraction for his daughter as she tried to make the most of her talent.
Eventually her resilience buckled and her game followed. She dropped from No4 in the world to 450 and, last August, stopped playing altogether and resolved to get away from her father. "I had to sort myself out. I had dropped down so far and my personal life was a mess," she says, staring intently at her drink. "There was no way I could play with that and I realised that. It had built up for a few years of stuff going on, and you just reach a point where it's enough and you can no longer go on.
"There's only a certain amount you can take and I think I reached that. When you are a 10-year-old it's different but when you are 20 it's another story. The situation wasn't getting better so I had to change something. It was getting lower and lower and I had a feeling that it wouldn't stop."
She began negotiations with Tennis Australia to play again for the country she, her parents and younger brother Savo moved to when she was 11 after they fled the civil war in Yugoslavia. She had switched to Serbia & Montenegro after the 2001 Australian Open, where Damir had, in a typical outburst, accused Tennis Australia of rigging the draw so that she played the defending champion Lindsay Davenport in the first round.
"What happened before, I had no control over, the decisions weren't made by me," she said when announcing her decision to return to an incredulous Australian media. She went some way to silencing the doubts about her commitment to the Australian cause and to reigniting her career by winning three matches in a play-off for an Australian Open wildcard rather than simply take the one she inevitably would have been offered.
It is hard to know what reaction she will get from the Melbourne crowd when she plays her first-round match against Conchita Martínez Granados but at least she will have earned the right to be there. Her talent is beyond question: just ask her friend and fellow comeback expert Martina Hingis, whom she humiliated 6-2, 6-0 in the first round of Wimbledon in 1999 when the Swiss was the defending champion and Dokic was a 16-year-old qualifier ranked 129 in the world, the lowest-ranked player to beat a top seed at any grand slam in the open era.
Such memories are still fresh enough to make her believe she can get back to that standard and if she succeeds, she will do so under far happier circumstances. "The last six months have made a really big difference. I sorted myself out. I have my own life now, I have my own base and I didn't have that for the last few years," says Dokic, who lives in Monte Carlo with her boyfriend and constant companion Tin Bikic.
"I am really happy with my life, all I have to do now is start enjoying my tennis. I really have the desire now to get up every morning to train and to compete and I am really happy that I have that, because it wasn't like that for a long time. It's a good feeling, because sometimes you get to a stage where you think, 'I'm never going to compete again'.
"I know that when I'm 100% I can play to a really good level. It's just a matter of being disciplined and motivated again. I've gone down so much that I think I'd be happy with making the top 30 again at the moment, and if I can make that then I could maybe make the top 10 again. But I'm so far away from that right now.
"At the moment I'm playing with nothing to defend and nothing to lose. I still have so much time. In a way I was lucky and unlucky that I did what I did so early. I experienced things at 16 that others do at 23, 24 and I'm still only 22 now. I still have so many years left."
Dokic draws inspiration from Mary Pierce, whose early years were dogged by her abusive father Jim and whose career has enjoyed a remarkable renaissance in the last 18 months. Dokic feels a great affinity with Pierce's journey from despair at her father's behaviour, through success, failure and back to success again.
"I think Mary is a great example. I think she just enjoys it out there so much, you can see that in her and that's why she's playing so well. She's always been able to do it because she's really talented, but it was just a matter of getting herself together and getting herself in shape as well. She's also started very young and she also had problems off the court which she had to deal with as well.
"It's good to know that you can do it, because I think it's so much harder to get to a level [then] to drop down and to come back up. It just proves to me what a good player she is."
Even if she gets past Martínez Granados and earns some ranking points at Melbourne Park, and again in her next scheduled event in Pattaya, Dokic still has a long, difficult journey back to where she feels she deserves to be, via small, scruffy tournaments in far-flung places. It would be enough to put off a weaker personality but given the things she's been through, Dokic is not easily daunted.
"I'm pretty much starting from the beginning but the difference is that there is no pressure because I've been there before and done it before," she says. "I'm playing for myself now."