From Scotland On Sunday:TENNIS: Inside the Dokic
YOU could forgive Jelena Dokic for being a bit confused. She is only 19, and yet in her short career she has escaped the war in Yugoslavia, running from her Belgrade home at the age of 11, and adopted Australian nationality and set up home in Sydney with her parents and brother, only to relinquish her new citizenship in high dudgeon to revert to her Yugoslavian passport. She now lives in the United States. All this, and we have not even mentioned her father, Damir.
When it comes to tennis parents from hell, Dokic could tell a tale or Gettwo. Following the long tradition of aggressive, money-grabbing or just plain barking fathers on the WTA Tour, Damir takes his place proudly with the best.
Mary Pierce has spent most of her life running away from her father, Jim, who was convicted of armed robbery and spent time in the psychiatric wing of a high-security prison. Jennifer Capriati was shaped and trained to be the family breadwinner by her father, Stefano, a huge bear of a man with a volatile Italian temperament and hands like hams. As a teenager, Capriati famously imploded under the pressure of her fatherís expectations and demands, and is showing every sign of doing so again. And then there is Damir.
Damir Dokic used to sit at the court side like a sawn-off Rasputin, staring intently as his daughter went through her paces. Those were the good days. Fond of a drink or two, he had bad days and managed to get himself thrown out of the Edgbaston Priory Club in Birmingham, Wimbledon and the US Open. He last made the tea-time news after running away with a television microphone and berating a camera crew in Melbourne following Jelenaís early departure from the Australian Open in 2000.
Damirís English is limited at best, so as he got himself into more and more trouble, Jelena, the waif-like teenager, could be seen at his side translating his arguments, offering excuses and trying to calm the situation. Then she would go back to work and win her next match, and would calmly discuss forehands and backhands to a fascinated press corps in the interview room afterwards. Jelena has every right to be confused.
In the middle of all this media mayhem, Jelenaís credentials as a player tend to be overlooked. She was the top-ranked junior in the world at the age of 15 and then, a year later, she announced herself to the public by beating Martina Hingis at Wimbledon in the opening round. Jelena had come through the qualifying competition, and was ranked 129 at the time. By the end of her run - she was stopped in the quarter-finals by Alexandra Stevenson - she had climbed to 37 in the world pecking order. She has never looked back.
It seemed that Damirís outrageous behaviour upstaged every one of Jelenaís achievements, and yet on she pushed. Every move up the rankings was used as a platform for the next leg of the journey to the top. She finally made the breakthrough last year, winning her first title in Rome - one of the big-money, top-tier events - and, having developed the winning habit, she has been doing it on a regular basis ever since. Her latest win in Birmingham was her fifth career title.
"I played well in Rome," she said. "I had some awkward opponents that werenít ranked as highly, but they were really mental, mental matches. My confidence was up, and thatís where everything really turned around. You see so many players: they win a title, they go backwards after that. My aim was to win that title, do well and keep on going. If not better then, at least, stay at the same level."
Her game defies the basic laws of physics. She is tall at 5ft 9in, but pencil thin, weighing just 9st 6lb, and yet she can generate enough power on her ground strokes to deal with the big-hitting Amazons of the game. And she is a fighter. Once she gets her teeth into a match, nothing will persuade her to let go. It is, she thinks, a legacy of all that she has been through, and survived.
"I think that has a lot to do with it," she said. "Some players just have the game, but donít have the head, but Iím really determined and motivated. Iím mentally strong, and my game has got better in the last three years or so. And physically Iíve got a lot better, and thatís helped me. Last year I won so many matches with that.
"But I think mentally Iím strong; whether I win or lose, I know how to handle situations. Iíve had to learn a lot in the last few years. I think Iíve dealt with it well personally, because I didnít let it affect me. It even made me be a little bit stronger. Maybe thatís actually helped me a lot."
Her father does not travel as much these days, preferring to stay at home and look after Jelenaís younger brother, Savo. Still, she will not have a word said against her family, and when life gets lonely or tough on the tour, it is to them that she defers.
"I always turn to my family," she said. "I think thatís the easiest. I think my familyís built that way. I think we always stick together, and thatís what helps. I have a few players that I can talk to, two or three, not more than that. You canít talk to everyone. At the end of the day, if you do have a really bad day, you can just talk to that person. We are all in the same boat: we both win and we both lose. Itís a lot better than you think."
If this makes her seem like a down-trodden soul, Jelena begs to differ. She has gradually taught herself to try to enjoy life away from the courts, and she likes the same pastimes as any 19-year-old. She loves to shop - her interview schedule was arranged around trips to the designer stores - she loves movies, music and a giggle with her friends. Her favourite television shows are Friends "and the fun ones", though the suggestion that she might enjoy Sex and the City brought a look of horror and swift change of subject. Jelena may have learned to cope with the media, but she is still very wary.
"Youíve got to watch what you say, but thatís normal. I have to deal with it whether itís good or bad and sometimes itís good, sometimes itís bad. Every tennis player has to deal with it. You can write only so much about my family and everything else. But, at the end of the day, when you get on court, thatís what gets written about."
No matter what has happened in the past, Jelena has never been in doubt about what she has wanted and what she is prepared to endure. "Iíve sacrificed a lot to be in tennis and to play. I like the life that I have, but itís certainly not an easy life, even if I wouldnít change it for anything.
"If I wanted to play or not, it was up to me, and I never, ever said that I wanted to stop or that I didnít want to play, no matter what happens off the court. And I always love to play. There are hard times, there are good times, you have to deal with that - every player goes through that. Some of them more, some of them less."
So now she is settled in and ready for Wimbledon. It is, in her opinion, the best of the four Grand Slam events, and despite its traditions and image, it is the most friendly of tournaments.
"I think in England and in Wimbledon the crowd really know their players. There is a tradition, and the atmosphere is unbelievable every year. I think that people are the friendliest there for me, I have a lot of fans there. Iíve always done well - quarters, semis and a fourth round is not bad. I had my best results at a grand slam and my best memories stem from Wimbledon."
Serena Williams, in all probability, will wait for her in the quarter-finals, and bar her path to Capriati in the semis. To get past one or both would take a monumental effort, but at last it might leave the public with a lingering memory of Jelena as a top-10 tennis player rather than a kid with a madcap dad.
And she is anything but confused about her tennis destiny.