Tuesday, December 19, 2006

#8: What the Hell is Wrong with Jelena Dokic?

Of course, maybe the question, "Does anyone still care?," should be added to Intriguing Question #8.

First off, I should say that "WTA Backspin" originated as a postscript to my weekly editions of "Jelena Corner" on Jelena-Dokic.com a few seasons back, so ruminating on the "State of Jelena's Game" is something of a tradition around this time of year. Every season of IQ's has seen one selection that touched on the current condition of Dokic's career, and her prospects in the upcoming season.

Thus, it is with great displeasure that I must say that I come here not to praise "The Debutante," but to bury her. Not that she needs any help... she's been doing a fairly good impression of a player who's been trying to sabotage her own career for a few seasons now.

In many ways, Dokic has epitomized the notion of what's "intriguing" about the WTA tour, for both good and bad. Wacky dad. A striking ascent on the court, then a comet-like journey through the tour's upper reaches before finally disappearing from view while all the true "stars" have continued to shine in the sport's sky.

Truthfully, has there ever been a formerly top-ranked player whose steadily downward plight has been as irrelevant as Dokic's has become? She hasn't been the textbook burnout case (ala a late 1990's Jennifer Capriati), nor the victim of an untimely injury (such as Andrea Jaeger, who reached #2 in 1980) or an ultimately tragic phenom (like "Little Mo" Connolly -- check out her story). Dokic has been an interesting enigma throughout her career, but she's turned out to be more of a frustrating head case than a classic tale of talent gone awry.

A year ago, though, Dokic seemed to be back on track. Tennis Australia had swallowed hard and opened its doors for a player who'd years earlier left in a huff with father Damir chanting charges of draw-rigging. As usual, it was a brief marriage... one that lasted only as long as things went Jelena's way. Under an Australian flag, Dokic won the Australian Open Wild Card playoff tournament, but then blew two match points and lost to Virginie Razzano in the 1st Round in Melbourne. In a few months, it was as if her brief blip of rediscovered relevance never actually occurred at all. The same player who earned over $1 million in 2001 barely won over $17,000 in 2006 (and took home a grand total of $67 in April).

When Dokic did play the rest of the season (in between her long absences, whether they be because of injury or indifference -- it's often hard to tell with the secretive Dokic camp), she essentially puttered around in a series of ITF events. Not a bad idea, though it should have been the plan at least two years earlier, when her ragged game and confidence first showed the signs that a repair wasn't going to be an overnight job. Still, it would have been a good course of action if Dokic's commitment to rebuilding her career was evident, but that hasn't been the case for quite some time.

Recently, Dokic made yet another of those head-scratching decisions that ticked off another handful of seconds on her career's final self-destruct clock when she voluntarily left Niki Pilic's academy in Munich, where she had finally seemed to have found a safe haven from which to mount a serious comeback. Whether this break came more because of a contract offer that was "anything but fair" (Jelena's long past being able to feel entitled to breaks... it's not 2000 anymore) or the facts behind Dokic's enigmatic quote about Pilic "staying out of her private life" is anyone's guess.

With Dokic, the truth could be either, or both. Take your pick, not that it matters. It'd just be the latest excuse by the 23-year old to not keep her own fragile vow to herself to get back even a fraction of the career she's managed to squander after being ranked as high as #4 in August '02.

"Jelena doesn't know what she wants" - Niki Pilic

As it is, Dokic is now back working with Borna Bikic, the Croatian coach (and, not coincidentally, brother of Jelena's boyfriend/fiance Tino) who's served more as an enabler than career consultant during Dokic's ranking spiral. From all indications, Bikic lets Jelena do what she wants, no matter whether it's a good idea or not (just as she prefers it). The recent scuffle the three had with a group of Croatian toughs blaming Jelena for some of Serbian Damir's past rants is just another example of the sort of mess that she consistently sets herself up for thanks to her poor decision-making. If she was following the correct course, she'd never been in Zagreb to be pushed around in the first place.


In 2005, Dokic talked of returning to the Top 20. In 2006, it was the Top 50. Now, she speaks of the Top 100. It says a great deal about her that even that modest goal seems like pie-in-the-sky for the world #587. Despite her comments to the contrary, at her core, Dokic is aimless. Directionless. Lost. She utters the right words about goals and plans, but her actions speak louder than all the words in the world. At this point, it's all about whether she's serious about being a tennis player again, or whether she really just wants to be left alone. It's not always the case (just look at JHH), but it appears that with Dokic they're two mutually exclusive concepts.

The odds aren't good that Dokic will ever play in the spotlight again. She doesn't have the heart of Capriati, who turned her life and career around once... and can't be counted out in her attempt for one more major comeback after her injury/surgery-riddled past two seasons. She's not able to focus herself against adversity as well as Mary Pierce, the player Dokic touted in early '06 (in no small part because of their shared background of familial strife) as the touchstone for her own resurgence, either. Heck, she's not even as resilient as Daniela Hantuchova, who rose into the Top 5 at the same time as Dokic. Hantuchova may never reclaim her previous standing in the sport, but she's never stopped trying, has been willing to admit her own mistakes (for example, realizing that it was wrong to leave coach Nigel Sears) and accept advice and direction. Wonder Girl has at least kept her head above water, while Dokic has been sinking like a stone in a surging river and seems destined to drown.

Since fleeing Damir's circle of influence, Jelena has become a lost soul with no clue. She did retain something from her time with daddy, though. Stubborness, and the inability to accept a dissenting opinion like a professional. If someone doesn't follow in blind lock step with Jelena's desires and preconceived notions about how things must be, she usually flees while her face is still flushed (often slandering the "traitor" on the way out the door). Thus, she ultimately finds her way back to "the gang that can't shoot straight," largely because they'll nod in agreement while she continues to persist in the false perception that she already knows what's best for her flagging career.

I think Dokic made the wrong career choice. She shouldn't have been a professional tennis player -- her true calling was to be the President of the United States.

Pilic is the most recent object of Dokic's scorn, but he also might be the last. After all, at this point, anyone who'd get involved with her tennis career would have to be a masochist of the highest order.

Hmmm, maybe it's Dokic herself who's the true masochist. How else can her string of career-killing decisions, each one as bad as the last, be otherwise explained?

It'd be easy to blame Damir for her ingrained paranoia and tendency to have temper tantrums when challenged... but that would just be another case of excuse-making. The time for that ran out a long time ago. This is no way to run a career. No worry, though... it won't likely last much longer.

"I feel I have got my head together and my tennis together." That was Jelena Dokic in 2003... and it wasn't the truth then, and still isn't.

In fact, Dokic is no longer even fit to carry the "Debutante" moniker. That nickname was born of both promise and legitimate entitlement. Neither word currently exists in the Dokic lexicon, who's hardly of the nature to become an Anglican Dominican nun, as has recently become the case with Jaeger... err, I mean, Sister Andrea. Much like Jaeger, though, "Sister Jelena" is looking at the end of one phase of her life and the beginning of the next entirely different one. It's up to Dokic whether or not that's a good thing or not.

Will Jelena Dokic be a (wo)man or a mouse as a tennis player in 2007? I'm afraid we already know the answer. Face it, it's never a good thing when Damir is arguably the most sensible voice in the family these days. As the new season begins, Dokic's descent into irrelevance should be sad... but, ironically, it isn't. Actually, it's difficult to have much of a heartfelt response of any kind at all anymore. It's probably smarter to just wash one's hands of the situation, and wish Dokic the best... even if one knows that the concept would fall on deaf ears for a person seemingly intent on obliterating what little remains of a once-promising career. Now, maybe THAT is sad.

It's just about time to play taps for what never was.

PREDICTION DART BOARD: Dokic will end 2007 ranked between #300-400, and will extend her stretch without a single Main Draw win in a slam to four full seasons (her last slam win came in the 1st Round of the '03 U.S. Open)

All for now.


NEXT UP: Look out, North America, here they come!! Ummm... well, maybe. Kinda. Well, at least ALL hope isn't lost.


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