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20 Jun 2002 00:00
Given that her rivals are built like Amazons, her dad has been depicted as mad, and her home has three times been whisked halfway around the world, Jelena Dokic’s appearance comes as something of a surprise. Lightly built and shiny-skinned, this elfin-faced 19-year-old scarcely looks equipped for the world in which she has had to survive.
For those who don’t know her conflict-ridden story, Dokic escaped war-torn Serbia, fell out with Tennis Australia, was unable to settle in Florida and found herself driven full circle back to Yugoslavia.
But she has remained loyal to the father who was ejected from two grand slam tournaments and banned from a third. And despite facing opponents who are five inches taller or 30 pounds heavier she has stayed in contention. Against an unkind fate she has stood ruthlessly contemptuous.
It takes less than a minute to discover how. “You learn how to do it yourself,” she says curtly. “I came from a really tough situation and I have had to deal with it.”
As in life, so in tennis. It is with the same drive that she has coped with a cut-throat circuit in which last year she reached the world’s top 10 and next week at Wimbledon is seeded to reach the quarterfinals.
“I learned as a junior that you have to be stronger than everyone else,” she says. “It was good for me that there was animosity from the other players. I never had any help on the mental side. I don’t like that sort of thing—you have to figure it out for yourself.”
This is Dokic’s way. She insists she does not know self-doubt, speaks openly of her self-esteem and says she is always mentally strong. Whether or not that is an accurate self-portrait does not matter; this is the way she has to tell herself to be, because that is what she has learned from her itinerant family.
But all that uprooting, was that not sometimes a bit too hard to handle? “That’s just a tennis player’s life—we have to be on the move,” she says, evading the point, which was about her roots. She is more forthright about the media, alleging they contributed to her decision to quit Australia. Putting up with the press is not so easy. “Sometimes I’m just not in the mood for them, but I deal with that better than I did,” she reckons.
Better to have remembered how Tony Roche, then the Australian Davis Cup coach no less, was dismissed rather sensationally in 2000, ostensibly because daughter and father decided that they could work out the technical side for themselves.
That is one reason Jelena has found it hard to accept that her father has not been with her this year. As one would expect from so guarded a family, the reasons for his absence remain unclear.
The explanation may be related to the six-month ban from the WTA Tour, served for abusive behaviour in the players’ lounge at the US Open in 2000, even though Damir Dokic is said to have become a reformed character since it ended in March last year.
“He wants to take a break. He’s got some other things he wants to do,” she says in a way that signals she will be doing nothing to make her answer less mysterious. “It would be better if he were here. But I think he will be at Wimbledon.”
Instead Liliana Dokic has become Jelena’s travelling assistant. She does the organising, the packing, the laundry; she ensures that her daughter is where she is meant to be on time, plans the journey and a dozen other things that apparently Damir does not do. Mum brings loads of advantages. Dad helps just with the tennis. Despite that, she still misses him.
The extravagantly bearded former truck driver has not been averse to some embarrassing straight talking with strangers and has a liking for a drink or three, but he has been around from the beginning of his daughter’s career and that is a massive building-block in their relationship. That might explain why she denies allegations that he has been too tough on her. But there is a pause and the old catchphrase clicks in.
“Actually I have to deal with them both,” she says. This teenager passed into adulthood a long time ago.
Curiously, Damir has one thing in common with Richard Williams, the father/coach to Venus and Serena. Damir has helped his daughter without having much background in the game. Williams has done likewise. He, however, is said to have picked up his knowledge from books. Damir has not. Which is why it amazes people that his daughter still claims him as a coach.
“When you know your game it’s not very hard to figure out what to work on,” Jelena says. “You know where you win your matches and where you lose them. The two of us together know what we have to do.”
But then the guard slips. “I do get homesick and lonely,” she suddenly confides. “So I would rather have someone from my family doing it all with me.”
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