Jelena Dokic is one a great run at the Australian Open. Is it too late for her to get back to the top?

Sports News - January 23,  2009

We’ve had precious few upsets at this year’s Australian Open and no big ones yet, so, to my mind, Jelena Dokic is the story here so far. Sadly, it’s an old story. Abusive parents are as old as time and, I would submit, a subject of public discussion only in the past half century. Okay, it’s there in the bible, but I mean public discussion leading to corrective policies

In the tennis world it’s mostly women players who have the abusive parent syndrome and that’s because they develop quicker than men physically to the point that a 14 year old professional is not at all uncommon. It’s harder to control a strapping 17 year old male athlete. Jennifer Capriati and Mary Pierce joined the tour at age 14 and they both managed to recover from their family drama in time to win two slams. Dokic I’m not so sure about.

In 2000, the WTA suspended her disturbed father, Damir, for drunken and violent behavior in the players’ lounge at Wimbledon. After Dokic dropped her father and hired a new coach, Damir accused the new coach of kidnapping her. In 2006, he claimed that he was going to kidnap Dokic and bring her back from Australia to Serbia, the family’s home country. At the same time, he said he’d even thought about killing an Australian as revenge for the country brainwashing his daughter.

Amidst all this, Dokic understandably fell apart. After her first round win here over Tamira Paszek – her first victory in a grand slam since 2003 and remember, people, she was once ranked number four in the world – she covered an entire pain cycle of family issues that are unique only in that athletes are in the unenviable position of having to work through these family matters well enough to resume their career before their bodies give out. Here’s what she said:

I went through hell and back. I battled severe depression for about two years. Didn’t play for months at a time and was really seriously thinking about not playing. It was a tough time in my life. I had a lot to go through, a lot of family issues. I don’t talk to my father, I haven’t for years. I talk to my Mom, we are mending that relationship. It’s really a miracle for me. It’s real emotional to win today. [For] what I had to go through, it’s really great to have this win and I don’t think a lot of people know what it means to me.

Dokic took out top twenty player Anna Chakvetadze in the second round and that was surprising because you’d think there might have been an emotional letdown after the first round. But then she took out number 12 ranked Carolyn Wozniacki in the third round and now she’s starting to look like the player who beat number one ranked Martina Hingis in the first round at Wimbledon in 1999 – a huge, huge upset at the time.

It looks like Dokic has just jumped out of nowhere but she played a full season last year and ended up with a 35-10 record. Having said that, she only beat three players in the top 100 and those victories were all in the first tournament of the year. She didn’t beat a top 100 player the rest of the season. So, has she run out of time?

If the question is: Has Dokic run out of time to reach the upper echelons of the sport and return to the number four ranking and get to a semifinal or two at a slam, I’d have to edge towards saying yes, she’s run out of time. It may seem like I’m being a spoilsport, but in that complex world of inner confidence, she’s lost a very valuable commodity: collective momentum. When a young player comes along and knocks off top players and rises up the rankings, fans around the world sit in awe and expectation. You can feel it in the crowd, in the media, in the tennis blogs, and in the player’s home tennis association which can be crucial in providing support to help young players develop. As Dokic said in an interview in October 2008:

I feel like I am starting from zero. You lose everything that you had before. The only thing you have to go on is experience. You lose the confidence and the match play and everything, so you really are starting from zero.

When you lose all that and you lose, or purposely remove yourself from, your family’s support, it’s a lonely world out there. Mary Pierce suffered with an abusive father and I can imagine it helped immensely that her brother David coached her for many years. One of Dokic’s great regrets is the lost contact with her younger brother. Patty Schnyder’s parents hired a cult expert to extract her from a cultish relationship with her coach and she ended up marrying the cult expert. At least it was an upgrade. The point is that the support has to come from somewhere if you’re going to compete in such a high pressure profession.

If the question is: Has Dokic run out of time to have a professional tennis career, say a ranking in the mid 100s over the next few years, I’d say no. Looking at her play now, I think she can be a solid player and she’s only 25 years old so she’s got four or five years left.

It’s just that I can’t see a third round run at a slam happening with any regularity. The yearly grind is long and hard enough and then you have to rise to the occasion in the upper level tournaments and once again in the slams. Unaccountably, Dokic took off last September and most of October and only played one more event the rest of the year though there was no report of injury.

I think she’s in for a lot more ups and downs, the kind that mark most careers, especially mid-level careers. And a mid-level career would be a huge victory in itself. It’s just that it could have been so much more.

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