Friday, January 15, 2010


(ninth in a series)

When it comes to following the dramatic arc that an individual player's career takes over the years, it generally pays to have been paying close attention at the start. The ultimate highs are more fun, but with that usually comes the lows that are simply downright depressing. It's usually worth it, though. When it comes to the once-exhilerating, oft-frustrating and, still, potentially fulfilling career of Jelena Dokic, the journey has been a wild, and surely exhausting, one.

While it was thrilling to be a fan of the Yugoslav-turned-Aussie-turned-Serb-turned-Aussie back when she first burst onto the scene back in 1999 and climbed into the Top 5 just a few seasons later, my elation was often accompanied by the maddening experience of often seeing all her off-court controversies -- most instigated by her father Damir -- overshadow her not-to-be-overlooked on-court accomplishments (I can still remember listening to Pam Shriver and Mary Joe Fernandez go on for almost a full set about anything and everything BUT tennis while commentating on one of Dokic's matches... and this was when she was a solid Top 10 player), drive her into a self-imposed exile from her adopted home nation of Australia and, eventually, send her career (and life) into a tailspin for a number of years. One day, when her career is over (which will hopefully now be further down the line than it might have appeared to be a few years ago when she'd long since dropped off the major tennis radar), I'll surely put together all those thoughts and personal memories into a heartfelt tribute to a player that is quite, literally, the reason that Backspin exists in the first place (as "Jelena Corner" led to weekly WTA reports that eventually morphed into this space). But not today.

No, this Special Edition will simply focus on the long road that led to Dokic's triumphant -- not to mention long before thought beyond being a legitimate possibility -- run to the quarterfinals of the 2009 Australian Open. I've been looking for a way to incorporate some of my old weekly "Jelena Corner" columns (2001-04 or so) at Pierre Cantin's still-up-and-running site into the "Time Capsule" series for some time now, and the one year anniversary of Dokic, or "The Fair One" as I used to call her, rising from the ashes of her career last January in Melbourne seems to me to be the perfect opportunity. "Repurposing" old columns is a tradition here, don't you know.

So here, in chronological order, are some of my past thoughts on Dokic, either at the end of a successful season, when everything seemed possible as she and her fans were looking forward to the potential return to Australia that never seemed to happen (Jelena was the original "Dorothy" in the Dorothy Tour, which I still call the opening month of the season in Oz... I guess it's something of an subconscious tribute to Dokic), or at the start of a new year after she'd once again turned her back on a return Down Under, continuing a too-long absence that annually provided a "false start" to her season, as well as squandering what could have been a group effort involving both herself and the Australian fans who likely would have forgiven the then-teenager her past mistakes if she'd only come back (and ultimately did, as it turned out, when she returned in '09 as a woman finally trying to salvage a career and gather the strength to make the right decisions).

But, as I said, it's best to go back to the beginning (or as close to it as I can get):

JELENA CORNER -November 20, 2001
"Jelena 2001 Year in Review, Pt.I -- A Quick (and controversial) Start"

Jelena Dokic had ended the 2000 season at a career-high ranking of #26, and the 17-year old Australian entered the new year with her usual fire-in-the-eyes demeanor intact. With a game striving to unearth greater successes beyond her well-known exploits on the lawn courts of the All England Club the previous two years, 2001 was poised to be her personal proving ground. It was precisely what she'd been waiting for.

In April, she'd finally be released from the shackles of the WTA's age restrictions... and hopes were high that the far greater things she'd dreamed of were on the immediate horizon. Accordingly, she set a personal goal of a Top 15 singles ranking and went about preparations for the Australian Open, her only official WTA event in the first three months of the year. The tournament would open a nearly eleven-month odyssey filled with big moments, both on and off the court for Jelena. But the road from January to November wasn't a smooth, nor quiet, one. Typical of her young career, things got off to a quick (and controversial) start in January.

The year began with reports that Damir Dokic had admitted he'd made a mistake with his poorly-received firing of Australian tennis champion Tony Roche as his daughter's coach in 2000 because he'd overreacted when Roche wasn't "tough enough" after a bad loss. That news was followed by the announcement that Jelena still planned to represent Australia in Fed Cup play (an unresolved question after her comments following the Sydney Olympics about never playing for the country again due to a harsh article about Damir that had been printed in an Australian tennis magazine). The combination of stories made it appear as if the difficulties and squabbles the Dokic family had with the Aussie tennis establishment leading up to Sydney had at least been temporarily smoothed over. Prior to the beginning of the new tennis season, the family stated an intention to spend more time in Florida and Belgrade in the near future in order to better avoid the increasingly harsh -- and what they believed to be unfair -- spotlight in Australia. At the time, it seemed a fairly innocuous announcement. But it would soon prove to be a warning sign of still more controversy to come.

Meanwhile, Jelena opened her season by participating in an exhibition in Hong Kong. She was in superb form, too, winning the event by knocking off #12 Elena Dementieva (coming from a set down to avenge an Olympic SF loss) before defeating #8 Anna Kournikova in the final to earn her first (unofficial) singles title as a professional. All in all, things were looking decidedly positive.

Then came Melbourne.

One year earlier, draw-rigging claims and a frustrated, ill-advised denigration of the talent of her surprise 1st Round conqueror, Hungarian Rita Kuti Kis, had brought down a hail of criticism directly on Jelena's head (rather than only Damir's) for the first time. In 2001, yet another Melbourne firestorm was ignited on the eve of the Open.

In the singles draw, #24-ranked Jelena drew #2-seeded and defending champion Lindsay Davenport in the opening round. Despite still being under a six-month ban from the WTA tour since September '00, Damir dusted off the draw-rigging charges and then upped the ante ten-fold by declaring that Jelena would represent her native Yugoslavia -- not her adopted home of Australia -- at the Open and then pack up and leave Sydney for Florida immediately after the tournament. All this happening at such a late date generated tremendous negative press coverage, creating a mini-hurricane right in the middle of Jelena's preparation for the match. As usual, she defended her father and went along with the decision... then went out and nearly upset Davenport.

The Yugoslav announcement had short-circuited the tremendous crowd backing that would have greeted Jelena -- fresh off her Olympic SF run in Sydney a few months earlier -- in the opening night's feature match at Rod Laver Arena. The catcalls were held to a minimum (due to a thankfully-restrained Aussie crowd), but Davenport got a decidedly warmer welcome when the two were introduced (with Jelena receiving a smattering of boos amidst a general unease)... not that it seemed to matter to Dokic at all. As has ususally been her wont in such situations (far too many to recount now), one would never have guessed the controversy surrounding this girl by the way she played. Her focus under such a harsh spotlight has been a hallmark since Wimbledon 1999, and it had not waned in the intervening eighteen months.

Dokic came out of the gate like a house afire, erasing an early 1-3 deficit to outserve and outhit Davenport, moving her around the court en route to a 6-4 first set victory. Ultimately, Jelena's relative big-time grand slam inexperience showed in the end as she dropped the next two sets 4-6,3-6 when errors began to creep into her game, most notably an ill-conceived drop shot at 40-30, 3-5 in the final stanza that was immediately followed by two straight unforced errors to conclude the match. Impressed by her young opponent, Davenport predicted after the match that Dokic would be a Top 10 player within two years. Little did the American know how right -- as well as wrong -- her assessment would soon turn out to be.

The 2001 Australian Open, like 2000's, had the potential to be an abject disaster. But a funny thing happened... it wasn't, and it was all because of the swift progression of Jelena's game, as well as her own personal maturation process. As had been the case with her 4th Round US Open loss to Serena Williams the previous season, Dokic seemed to have managed to gain ground with a disappointing defeat. She was much closer to Davenport in Melbourne than she'd been in a Wimbledon SF six months earlier, and her win in Hong Kong seemed to have emboldened her. Her tremendous play in Melbourne under such intense scrutiny only made her progress all the more apparent.

She followed this loss not with angry words fueled by frustration, but with the ability to smile and project with confidence the belief that the current state of her tennis was directing her along a straight path to success. Anyone who hadn't done so before was virtually forced to concede after Melbourne that very few external pressures ever seem to bother Jelena. Admiration for her ability to at least attempt to stay above the headline-grabbing fray was more in order in Australia than it had ever been before, and with her exit from Down Under the hope that a calmer off-court existence awaited her in the States was something to look forward to. But any thoughts that the Australia/Yugoslavia controversy was a hot-button issue that would soon fade away were naive ones. Before the end of 2001, it would rear its head again... and promise to remain a complicated issue that Dokic will have to face well into the near future. many ways, the "hammer" really effectively first dropped in 2002, as Damir's influence on Jelena's tennis decisions became impossible to separate from the damage it was doing and could do to her career. If not for his angry and half-crazed reactions to his treatment by Tennis Australia and the rest, Jelena surely would never have left Australia and the support system she had there. If she'd remained there, her career may never have cratered as it did in the mid-2000's. Hmmm, sounds like the beginning of an idea for a "What If?" column, eh?

"The Australian Question Becomes the Australian Absence"

Everything was setting up perfectly. Jelena Dokic's game had begun to assert itself like never before. Two singles titles, five finals and a Top 10 ranking in the final two months of the 2001 season showed that even greater things are yet to come.

All that remained was a thrilling run at a grand slam to cement Jelena's position in a starring role on the women's tennis stage. The question was where it would eventually happen. That the next grand slam on the schedule was to take place in her former home country, the same one she fled under a hail of controversy last January due to media pressure, seemed to be a sure sign that destiny was at work.

The tennis gods seemed to be looking out for her. Armed with what would be a high seed one year after a bad draw had forced her to face Lindsay Davenport in the 1st Round in 2001, 2002 seemed to present Jelena with a chance to make her biggest grand slam mark since the '99 Wimbledon. To do it at the Australian Open, under the noses of the media she so felt had done her wrong, seemed like a brilliant moment waiting to happen. An enticing stage she couldn't possibly pass up.

How wrong a notion that turned out to be.

The news that Jelena has decided to skip -- avoid, really -- the Australian circuit come January, including the first grand slam of the 2002 season in Melbourne, is in a word disappointing. But it's more than that. It's a lost opportunity that she might eventually regret.

Citing a tournament-heavy late '01 schedule and that Australia is so "far away" for choosing not to begin her season until late January in Tokyo isn't necessarily an illegitimate excuse. With any other player, it might even be accepted without pause. But not Jelena. To say that there'll be much reading between the lines with this decision is a monstrous understatement. Even if last year's feud with the Oz Open, the Australian tennis officials and media didn't play the major role in the decision, to think that it didn't at least come into the equation would be incredibly naive.

The wounds of the Australian incident are probably still fresh, and one can understand the desire to refrain from stepping back into the fray all over again in just a month-and-a-half. But going so far as a healthy Top 10 player voluntarily missing a grand slam seems a bit much. There are only so many major events in a player's career, and now there will be one less in Jelena's.

The truth is that skipping Australia in 2002 only assures that the story of her 2001 departure will carry over into 2003. The media pressure that Jelena avoids by not taking on the situation this January will only be delayed, not dismissed forever. The exit from Down Under will always be an issue for some, but it does little good for it to be pushed to the forefront indefinitely. Travelling to Melbourne, even while avoiding any Aussie tune-ups, in two months time would have gotten "the return" out of the way. Jelena's absence will give the story legs, and probably make the spotlight even more intense when she does finally play again before an Australian crowd.

All that being said, good aspects of Jelena starting her season a little later than anticipated aren't nonexistent. It means she'll be well-rested and primed by extra time with trainer Mike Nishihara and coach/"tennis friend" Radmilo Armenulic (whose additional set of eyes should be good for Jelena, no matter what his "official" designation), and should be able to hit the court in Tokyo in fine form (possibly after a January exhibition, ala Hong Kong '01). The 1st Round Aussie exit and age restrictions of 2001 mean she has no points to defend until April, and the comparatively early start in 2002 could prove to be a rankings boon should Jelena win a tournament or two during that time. In fact, she could play so well so early that the Australian absence is nearly forgotten. That's a luxury she might have next spring, but not one at hand in November.

Today, it's apparent that the biggest thing that Jelena will lose is an opportunity. Not to simply pick up valuable ranking points, but to begin to put the Australian issue behind her and to move on to more important things. That can't happen now. Not yet.

Hopefully, there's enough truth in the reasons given for skipping Australia that it means that this won't be an annual announcement. Hopefully, this IS a byproduct of a 2001 26-tournament schedule that's been over-stuffed since Roland Garros. In January '03, we'll find out. With luck, her decision then won't leave us talking about a lingering Australian Absence come 2004. The "perfect stage" will remain in Melbourne until the end of Jelena's career. She just needs to decide when the time is right to step onto it. Only then will she be able to truly put Australia behind her, no matter how many times she says that it's an issue that no longer has relevance in her life.

The one unquestioned truth in this entire thing is that Jelena can't rightfully challenge to be the best female tennis player in the world if she continues to bow out of grand slams, especially one of the two on her favored hardcourt surface.

Even someone as well-liked as Gustavo Kuerten causes eyebrows to be raised when he skips Wimbledon because of being "tired." Pete Sampras has been a great champion not just because he's won more grand slams than any other man, but because he's never turned his back on Roland Garros no matter how slim his chances of competing there have been. Having the courage to not be afraid to fail on a grand stage isn't something to be avoided, it's something to take pride in. Hopefully, Jelena doesn't allow herself to fall into the former trap.

If destiny sees fit, Jelena will return to Melbourne one day and then leave it two weeks later in triumph. That would be a more effective response to her critics than any press conference or official complaint could ever produce. Unfortunately, it'll be at least another year before that can become a reality. Too bad for her.

...2001 was such a year of promise for Dokic. One year removed from a slam semifinal, she seemed so close to being a player who could accomplish great things. It's hard to believe that was nine years ago now.

This J-Corner isn't necessarily directly related to Dokic's Down Under past, but it's kind of interesting to look at it now. Every year in "Jelena Corner," I would put together a "State of Jelena's Game" column where I'd talk about the progress of her tennis over the past year and talk about what she needed to do to improve. This is something of an example of one of those columns. It's telling that the analysis of Dokic's game over eight years ago reads like what could easily be said about many similar young players today who display power off the ground, but whose serving inconsistency and questionable in-match tactics often hamper them against the very best players. Also, the talk of the potential harm that Dokic's too-heavy schedule might eventually cause sounds like something that's been said about the likes of Jankovic and Wozniacki in recent seasons.

JELENA CORNER - December 15, 2001
"Jelena Year in Review, Pt.VI -- 2001 Overview/2002 Preview: The Learning Curve Shortened, but Will it Be Eliminated?"

"I really didn't expect it to go as well as it did." That was Jelena Dokic's initial reaction to the completion of the 2001 season, the 18-year old's most successful to date and one that saw her raise her singles rank from #26 to #8.

Considering Dokic entered the year with the goal of reaching the Top 15 by season's end, she succeeded far beyond even her own expectations. In doing so, she managed to cut a large chunk out of the usual champion's learing curve over the past year, and that she did it while her game still exhibits a handful of noticable (but fixable) flaws is a sure sign that this season's great success may have only scratched the surface of what she's capable of achieving.

Now, Dokic has always had great potential. She was the junior #1 in 1998 and won the US Open girls title, after all. But great junior success isn't always replicated on the WTA Tour, as the pressures on a young player to continue to achieve can sometimes be overwhelming. Jelena's 2001 solidified the notion that she won't be left to revel in past success, for her greatest moments are still in her future.

It should have come as little surprise, really. Dokic has always been adept at putting her head down and finding a way through the numerous chaotic situations she's seemed to find herself in during the past three years on the Tour. This year was no different, but the fact is that, except for the firestorm that accompanied the Australian/Yugoslavian citizenship controversy of January, the relative absence of Damir's name in newspaper headlines helped foster a better, comparatively quiet, environment in which Jelena's game was allowed to prosper like never before.

In the first season on the WTA Tour in which she wasn't hampered by age restrictions (though she didn't begin playing a full schedule until just before her April 12 birthday), Dokic won three singles titles (including Tier I events in Rome and Moscow, tying for the most on the Tour in 2001), was RU in three others (including Zurich's Tier I) and advanced to the SF in three more. Not only that, but her three singles crowns came on three different surfaces, as did her three Tier I finals. After winning her first title in May, she finally cracked the Top 10 in October... then closed out her post-US Open period with a 19-5 run that included trips to the finals in five of the six events she played before closing out the year with a QF loss to Lindsay Davenport in her debut appearance in the season-closing Sanex Championships.

The remarkable nature of Dokic's late-season success was helped along with her development of an all-important consistency in results against lesser-ranked players. Jelena had her share of upset losses over the course of 2001, but she ended her season with a 12-match winning streak against players ranked below her (with marks of 26-1 and 29-2 in such matches stretching back to the Spring) and her improved fitness and greater composure were evident in a series of come-from-behind victories (most notably, against Arantxa Sanchez Vicario in Hamburg, then Elena Dementieva in New Haven).

But Dokic's biggest personal obstacles were just as apparent. Often, breakdowns in her own service games led to back-breaking lapses in confidence and concentration, usually resulting in some of the most disappointing and disheartening losses of 2001. The most conspicuous loss in that category being the US Open defeat by Martina Hingis, a player Jelena should have had a chance to overpower... but instead saw her own game collapse after a quick start was undermined by mental backsteps on her own side of the net.

Against Top 10 players, Dokic was just 3-16 (with the losses accounting for 69.6% of her 23 defeats on the year) and had a string of 8 consecutive defeats against such players during the four-month span between her victories over Amelie Mauresmo in Rome and Kim Clijsters in Tokyo. Even with a potent power game of her own, Jelena was still at a decided disadvantage against the physically-intimidating likes of Lindsay Davenport and the Williams sisters, going a combined 0-8. Against the next level of power hitters, Jennifer Capriati and Monica Seles, she was 0-5. Obviously, the riddle of "Big Babe" tennis is something that will have to be solved in 2002 for Dokic to be able to make the goal to "strive for #5" a reality.

So, while Dokic's learning curve was shortened in 2001, can it be eliminated in 2002? Without a doubt, it can. Here are a few of the more important things to look for next season:

1) HER SERVE: It's the improvement of Dokic's serve that will be the top priority this offseason. While her serve doesn't need to become a Venus-like deciding factor, it does need to cease to be an occasional liability... for it's a downturn in serving consistency that's generally the starting-off point for collapses like the one that happened against Hingis in New York. Jelena has the ability to have a good serve game (she opened the '01 season serving better than ever, then saw her serve break down more and more as the season went on), and will need it to better compete against the Big Babes ranked ahead of her. One break of serve in the 1st set, after all, is often the deciding moment in Dokic's matches against Top 10 players. She's always had striking numbers when winning the 1st set (she never lost a major junior match after having been up a set), and it's carried over to the pros. She was 49-6 when doing so in '01 (as opposed to 7-19 when down 0-1), with the two big wins over Mauresmo and Clijsters coming after she gained the confidence instilled by a 1-0 advantage. New coach/"tennis friend" Radmilo Armenulic stated last month that Jelena's up-and-down serve was the first and most important thing that the two would work on leading into the new season, along with her...

2) SHOT VARIETY AND IN-MATCH STRATEGY: Dokic is often criticized for not having a "Plan B" during a match. She rips her powerful groundstrokes around the court, but if they're not landing inside the lines, or the opponent is handling her pace, she isn't quite sure what to do besides hit the ball even harder and go for still riskier shots than the ones that are the usual stock and trade of her game. The criticism isn't entirely unfounded, for Jelena has surely seen her game go down in flames after a quick start was halted by a rough patch through which she could never escape due to the avalanche of unforced errors that resulted when she felt the need to hit out on EVERY shot once she got behind. She starts to miss, then loses confidence and... well, it isn't a pretty sight. Armenulic, along with Damir (of course), will certainly use the offseason to elminate this flaw. In the Belgrade press conference of a few weeks ago, Armenulic mentioned that he would work with Jelena on her shot variety, incorporating more net play into her game along with ways to better utilize her excellent drop shot so that it's an effective weapon rather than simply a pretty shot whose landing spot sometimes seems to surprise Jelena as often as it leaves opponents flat-footed. If nothing else, no matter what Armenulic's official title turns out to be, it should be good for Dokic to have another set of eyes on her side. She will need to be on her game when she opens her season in Tokyo in late January against players who will have already had several weeks of game action under their belts.

3) FITNESS: Dokic made great strides in improving her fitness in 2001, and her better on-court results were apparent. Her increased stamina likely played a part in many of her come-from-behind victories, better three-set record (12-11) and number of wins after 0-1 set deficits (7 in 2001, after just 3 total in '99-'00). Trainer Mike Nishihara became a full-time, traveling member of Team Dokic following the Toronto tournament in August... and Jelena herself made a point of mentioning how big a role her fitness played in the impressive run of five finals in her last seven events in 2001. A full year of such attention from Nishihara should work even greater wonders in the coming season.

4) SCHEDULING: In her first full-time year on the Tour, Dokic stuffed her schedule with events (she played every week but one from Roland Garros in late May to the WTA Championships in early November) in an attempt to gain ranking points and to serve as something of a test run to determine which tournaments she liked to play the most. Considering how tired her body must have been after such a schedule, 2001's late-season success appears even more impressive. Jelena stated after the season a desire to schedule more rest for herself over the course of the year to stay fresh as the long season winds to a close with the Autumn North American/European legs of the tour calendar. Considering all the points she'll have to defend late next season, the fresher and healthier she is will be even more important than it would normally be.

Of course, even as these improvements are being made in Jelena's game, her 2002 season is now fated to begin with an Oz controversy once again, only this time it will be due to her absence from Australia rather than her retreat. When it was announced that she would skip the Australian circuit due to Damir's feud with Australian Tennis officials and media (as well as barely believable talk about the country being so "far away" and the factor of her tiresome late-season schedule), she became the only woman ranked in the Top 100 to not commit to the season's first grand slam event in the nation she used to call home.

The 2002 Australian Open, what with the improvement in her game and resulting high seed, seemed to be perfectly set up for Dokic to target it as her first legitimate chance to grab a slam title. The 32-seed format would have protected her from another 1r matchup with the likes of Davenport, and the opportunity to silence her Aussie critics (and maybe even earn back a portion of their grudging respect?) with a gritty performance Down Under so soon after the chaos of last January seemed like it would be too enticing a stage to pass up. That hasn't turned out to be the case, at least not in 2002.

This disappointing decision means that Jelena has squandered a chance to quickly put the Australian issue behind her, and assures that it will linger into 2003... when she will be faced yet again with the decision of whether the time is right to return. Hopefully, '03 will be when she decides to take command of the story by using it as a motivation to succeed on the court in Melbourne and "pay back" those she feels wronged her family there. THAT would be her best revenge, rather than ducking out on the entire experience. She certainly can't allow it to follow her around indefinitely, for the one certainty about this entire issue is that Dokic can't truly challenge for #1 if she's willing to voluntarily bow out of grand slams (especially one of the two on her favored hardcourts). Eventually, Jelena will realize that... and then try to make her belated return a triumphant one. Too bad it couldn't have happened next month.

But the continued evolution (and resolution) of "The Australian Absence" is just another lesson in the learning process -- Tennis 101, if you will -- that goes along with becoming a true champion. Dokic is not yet the complete player, physically and mentally... on and off court, that she'll need to be to fulfill the destiny she wants for herself. She certainly knows that. Her three late-season losses to Davenport were an important reminder that her Autumn surge will not be replicated, and surely not surpassed, without even more of the hard work that got her to #8 in the first place.

Dokic got a taste of big-time success in 2001, and it's sure to only whet her already voracious appetite for more. But it's her disappointments that will serve to be catalysts for the focus she'll need to make the next step up the tennis ladder. As with all top level athletes with an internal desire that matches their physical talents, the battle starts with the personal struggle to determine how much they're willing to give of themselves to be as successful as they know they CAN (and how angry they'll be if they don't live up to their own high standards). Jelena set the bar for her future successes pretty high this year, and now she'll have to find a way to do it all over again in 2002. The thought here is that she won't be lacking for motivation.

This journey is different for every player. Jennifer Capriati's was rocky and wasn't completed until she was 25, while Monica Seles was so overpowering and oblivious to pressure at 17 that she had pretty much demoralized no less a player than Steffi Graf before the stabbing incident in Hamburg sidetracked what looked about to become an all-time great career. At the same time, Hingis was smarter and seemingly more emotionally mature than anyone when she was just 16... then a delayed reaction to the pressures of the Tour and, quite frankly, simply growing up served to be the first sign of her game's recent downward trend. The current plight of ex-#1 Hingis -- as well as the past one of recent #1 Capriati -- is a situation that Dokic should learn from, and a trap she must be sure to not get snared by. Again, she's always seemed level-headed and family-oriented enough to be able to avoid such a pitfall, though.

Dokic has never had a problem with stoking her own fire. She's a very determined, head-strong young woman, and her rise in the tennis world despite the controversy that tends to swirl around her family is a testament to her ability to focus on what she deems most important. Hopefully, she won't lose that quality as she appraoches her 20s and reaches full maturity on and off court. If so, then some great moments lie ahead in her career.

2001 was a year of change for Jelena, and one that has helped to create new and greater goals for her immediate future. If her rate of improvement continues at its current pace then, in a very short time, the sky just may be the limit. Team Dokic is ready, willing and should soon be able to make those grand dreams come true.

The next leg of the journey kicks off in Tokyo. Stay tuned. It should be fun.

JELENA CORNER - January 2003/WEEKS 2-3
"Oz 2003: Dorothy Held Hostage, Year 2"

Everyone's heading to Oz this week. Everyone but "Dorothy" Dokic, that is.

She's... well, I guess we're not quite sure where she is at the moment. But we DO know where she ISN'T... for the second straight year. Reasons and excuses abound, of course. Some legitimate, some not. What isn't arguable, though, is that Dorothy's skipping out again on what might be her best chance to win a slam title, voluntarily removing one more opportunity in a tennis career where such moments are a finite commodity.

Jelena's Melbourne absence means that, for the second year, not a single citizen of Adelaide, Box Hill, Canberra, Dubbo, East Brisbane, Footscray, Gawler, Hurstville, Indooroopilly, Juno, Kew, Lane Cove nor Marrickville will have a chance to proudly state to everyone in the world, "Jelena is near... and we are better for it."

The Sisters will be in Melbourne. As will Wonder Girl and the Grand Dame of Yugoslavian Tennis. Present, as well, will be the Waffles & Russians (and their little dogs, too!). Even The Petulant One will return to attempt to win her third straight Aussie title despite having not experienced anything resembling such acclaim since she tried to win her second straight a year ago. At this point, can anything or anyone persuade Dorothy to "surrender?" Yes, of course. But its name might just be "time." Time to get farther away from the Oz Incident of 2001... farther away from the notion that it's better to avoid possible bad press/fan reaction in favor of bad judgment that will appear less and less intelligent as the years go by. At 19, just a few seasons into a successful pro career, the Australian Avoidance can be explained in an acceptable fashion, and the fear of reprisal for past events is at least somewhat understandable.

But with the "Controversy Queen" content to uncharacteristically avoid another tornado-like backlash, the Aussies who put themselves to bed in Norseman, Orrorro, Pinnaroo, Quorn, Radium Hill, Streaky Bay, Toowoomba, Umbakumba, Victoria, Williamstown or are X-ray technicians at Prince Alfred Hospital in Sydney will have to refrain from waking up in the shadow that Jelena's presence might one day project there -- still, her future might look so bright that they'd have to wear shades. The same must be said about the denizens of Yampa Sound and any furry critter currently residing in a tree on Ziel Mountain. Sad, but true.

In January 2004, though, Dorothy will have left her teen years behind some nine months earlier. At that point, barring unforeseen circumstances, the decision to say "home" will cease to be able to be looked upon quite as kindly. As of Monday, Dorothy will have been held hostage for 729 days. Hopefully, as Day 1092 approaches a year from now, Jelena will see fit to release this portion of her career from this odd form of self-imprisonment... and remind everyone Down Under that they should wish she'd never left, that they should have fought harder to convince her to stay.

Maybe then and only then, will she ever have a chance to earn back the cheers that she (rightly) fears have transformed into boos in her long absence. And, then and only then, will she put herself on the full-circle path to what could be the crowing glory of a career that will never really be complete until she allows herself to find a way to write a more suitable end to the Australian chapter of her life... and it can occur happen back where so much of her story began. Who knows, that end could turn out to be the beginning of something greater than Jelena/Dorothy could have ever anticipated, nor surely imagined. But for that to become a reality she'll have to decide to show up. Some day.

JELENA CORNER - November 2003

"Borna, I don't think we're in Serbia-Montenegro anymore."

We all knew this moment would come one day. It was just a matter of time.

No one will be melting (we hope) this January. No Munchkins will be representing the Lollipop Guild. There won't be any flying monkeys (unless you count the Aussie press, that is). And there'll be no need to pay any attention to the man behind the curtain, either. What WILL soon be happening, though,is an event three years in the making. 1081 days, 213 matches, 134 wins, 84 tournaments, 79 losses, 36 months, 5 singles and 4 doubles titles after it was abruptly cancelled (on January 15, 2001), the word is out that the Dorothy Tour will officially be back in business. Yes, Jelena Dokic has finally set her inner Dorothy free. After two Januarys of captivity, she'll be a hostage no longer. The resurrection begins January 5, just under 50 days from now, as Jelena, aka "Dorothy," takes a quick yellow-bricked detour to New Zealand to drop in on some Kiwis and get her footing before she's off to see the Wizard in her former stomping grounds in the merry old land of Oz.

Birds have been flying over (or is it down under?) the rainbow ever since that hot night in 2001 when Jelena walked away amid a tornado of turmoil, saying her self-imposed exile would be for good (well, at least someone was saying it would be for good... and it most definitely wasn't the Wicked Witch of the West, but that's another story altogether). Ever since then, the cry at the end of the last two WTA seasons has been, "why, then, oh why" can't Jelena return, too? Now, finally, it will happen. After so long, it's time to break into a full-throated rendition of "Ding Dong, the Fair One's Back."

The Return won't be easy, so congratulations to Jelena for having the heart, brains and courage to finally make the first step toward setting things right. In order for the Fair One to rise to her intended heights, some of the most important steps could only be made Down Under. Maybe it took the trials and tribulations of 2003 to get her to realize the time was right to surrender Dorothy's extended offseason. If so, then the experience has already begun to spin gold before the calendar has turned over to 2004. This time around, the Oz courts will be filled by Williams and Russians and Belgians... and Jelena. Oh, my. What a glorious, long-overdue sight it will be. Tickets are now on sale for the "EuroJelena!" Tour's long-lost cousin. So queue up, everyone. This'll likely be a pretty hot ticket.

(okay, I'm all referenced-out... well, almost)

In 2004, when Jelena slips on her ruby slippers and clicks her heels two times, for the first time in ages she won't have to say she wants to go "home." She'll already be there. Look out, Emerald City. Here she comes.

JELENA CORNER - January 14, 2004

Quite an ugly sight -- the impenetrable fence still erected around the yellow brick road. For a while there, it looked like Jelena would leap over it with ease on her way to the Emerald City of Melbourne... a city, it should be noted, that is looking increasingly desolate with all the big name no-shows this year.

From Serena to Monica, from Mary to Jennifer, many top names are absent. Kim Clijsters is limping into town, and Venus and Lindsay Davenport are coming off surgeries with no clue whether or not their bodies will allow them to go at full force for an entire fortnight. In fact, world #1 Justine Henin-Hardenne will be the only woman in the draw who's actually won a grand slam title over the last two years. Now, it's official that Jelena will join this long list of absentees... again. Who could have guessed that just considering the possibility of clicking her heels would cause this much damage.

(deep sigh)

The Corner's 2004 debut wasn't supposed to be like this. Not again. It was supposed to be a triumphant return, win or lose. But, instead of being gracefully retired, this now-annual column has been raised from the thought-dead article folder in Pierre's desk drawer. Like Navratilova's career, no stake has yet been found that's sharp enough to be driven through its heart.

I guess everyone can try to keep the girl away from the drama, but no one can take the drama out of the girl (or something like that... you get the idea). Make no mistake, unresolved drama is still the Fair One's main business. The always-fragile house of cards is never safe from a stiff, collapsing breeze. The season already appears to be stuck in neutral (or maybe reverse) and Jelena still hasn't stepped onto the court. Make up your own additional and appropriate cliche. They'll all surely apply.2004's version of Dorothy Held Hostage is basically a case of "the domino theory of Jelena" being (at least temporarily) in full effect. Once the last minute decision was made to not hop the plane to New Zealand, everything that followed was all but assured. Auckland was more important than Sydney. It was the prep event (Jelena would have been the #2 seed in NZ, but unseeded in the very crowded Sydney field) with the promise of many matches, while Sydney was the toe-in-the-water moment of this would-be Dorothy Tour, meant to be the site of the big Down Under return more than where the Fair One could make a true title run.

Of course, a lack of matches didn't necessarily preclude a trip to Melbourne. Whether Jelena truly needs more practice time in Barcelona with Arantxa Sanchez Vicario is something only she truly knows. It's only fair to be skeptical. But one thing IS clear -- there will be no Dorothy sightings for the third straight year.

Last Aussie match: January 15, 2001 (approx. 1100 days ago)
Last Aussie win: Sydney Olympics, September 2000 (40 months ago)
Last Australian Open victory: 1999 vs. Kristina Brandi (2r)
...5 years ago, when Jelena was just 16 years old

The sole good news here is that Jelena has no rankings points TO LOSE by not playing. So, in a sense, it's a status quo situation. Tennis-wise, nothing's changed... it just didn't get better, either. And the timetable to return to the Top 10 in March will likely have to be pushed back a bit.But the bad, as always every January, outweighs the good. Another Australian Open opportunity (and there WAS an opportunity here, with so many top names staying home) wasted. Another future hurdle left to leap rather than put behind once and for all by simply moving forward. More unfinished business to deal with down the road, or avoid yet again a year from now. But we've gone over all this so many times before.

...she's played 213 matches
...won 134 times
...lost 79 times
...played in 84 tournaments
...claimed 5 singles titles
...and 4 more in doubles

During this latest ordeal, an old familiar (but mostly unwanted) voice was heard calling out from Europe, too. The bleating of the elder Dokic once again made headlines. With them, did anyone else feel Jelena's world quake just a little, as if a rip in the fabric of time had taken us back to 2001? Old ridiculous accusations were dredged up yet again, and new/old questions will now have to be asked and answered. Thus far, whether the old, often-damaging link has been re-established is unclear... but Jelena will certainly be queried about it before long. One hopes her answer -- if she's willing to give one -- won't make everyone shake their heads in worry all over again.

Either way, Jelena's world keeps spinning. Now, rather than face the prospect of stumbling Down Under she'll have to attempt to burst out of the gate a little farther North in Tokyo. Everyone will be crossing their fingers.

So, all the "Jeleniacs" will have to sit tight and hope for the best again. By now, though, everyone has gotten used to this drill. It's a disappointment, but shouldn't be an allegiance-turning moment.With luck, this ongoing hostage ordeal will finally end in 2005. Place your "Surrender Dorothy" placards and banners away for safekeeping in your closet, attic or steamer chest. There's still a whole year for Jelena to decide to release her "inner Dorothy" the next time around. There shouldn't be too many cobwebs that form on such fine, hand-crafted masterpieces before they're be able to be brought out for this annual rite yet again next January.

Of course, this time was different. This time, Dorothy's freedom seemed oh-so-close. Having the door slammed on her release once again has made cynics of us all. In the future, if the decision is again announced to finally put this story to its merciful rest, will any one of us truly believe a word the would-be Dorothy says? Probably not. And that's too bad. Jelena shouldn't so often see her career defined by such chaos, real or imagined. But, unfortunately, that's precisely what happens each and every year.

...Dokic finally returned to Australia in 2006 and was tentatively welcomed back by Tennis Australia, which demanded that she prove herself all over again. She won the internal Wild Card Playoff tournament to earn a berth in her first Australian Open main draw since 2001. There, she faced Virginie Razzano in the 1st Round, holding two match points and at one point celebrated after believing she'd won the match, only to learn that the line call had actually gone against her. She ended up losing a 2nd set tie-break, then was a virtual ghost in the 3rd. She left the court devastated, and one rightly wondered if she'd ever be back.

By 2009, the 25-year old Dokic was still trying to regain her footing. But she was finally committed to giving one last push to see if she could make something of her tennis career, and was coming clean about a battle with depression and having cut all ties to Damir, who she said was not only mentally abusive during the early years, but physically so, as well. A season earlier, she'd shown her willingness to work her way back from the bottom by going through qualifying in low-level ITF events, and even won her first career titles there (she'd pretty much skipped that stage during her early career, finding success so quickly on the WTA tour that she never needed to build her ranking by gaining vast experience on the challenger circuit). Still, she came to Melbourne having not won an Australian Open match since 1999, and not having tasted victory in the main draw of ANY slam since the 2003 U.S. Open.

So, it goes without saying that her QF run came out of nowhere. While Serena Williams was winning her fourth Australian Open title, it was Dokic who became the story of the tournament, knocking off three seeds and pushing another to three sets as her every-other-day night matches finally gave the Australian tennis fans a chance to produce full-throated cheers for her (really, for the first time since her SF run in the '00 Sydney Olympics) and for her to realize and appreciate what her absence had removed from her career and life. In retrosopect, her win over then #11 Caroline Wozniacki (a slam finalist and Top 5 player by year's end) and pushing soon-to-be #1 Dinara Safina to three sets have proved to look even more impressive than they did at the time, and that she managed to play five consecutive three-set matches, pulling victory from the clutches of defeat more than once, after having battled her way through nothing of the sort for many years, quite remarkable. After being revealed to be more fragile off the court than many realized, but silently worried about, Dokic showed that the desire and fire that once fueled her original rise up the WTA rankings hadn't been extinguished. Not yet. It was a wonderful thing to see.... all the more wonderful if you could remember how it felt to revel in such results the first time around.

"It's really emotional to win today. What I had to go through. It's really great to have this win. I don't think a lot of people know what it means to me. It's great to be here at a slam." - a tearful Jelena, after ending her six-year long drought of grand slam main draw wins with a 1st Round victory over Tamira Paszek

It wasn't too late for her to get things right, after all. Honestly, I had thought it probably was. As it turned out, all those original notions about Dokic were true. She had proven to be fragile, but she WAS indeed tougher than she probably had any right to be.

Here's how I reported her heroics of a year ago:

Day 1: "Jelena, version 2.0 x 2" (def. Paszek)
Day 3: "Overcoming Down Under" (def. Chakvetadze)
Day 5: "Another One Bites the Dust" (def. Wozniacki)
Day 7: "Chaos in the Morning, Drama During the Day and Glory into the Evening... late into the fun night" (def. Kleybanova)
Day 9: "Dinara on Her Shoulder" (lost to Safina)

Sure, injury and fatigue prevented the rest of her season from being as wonderful as it appeared it might be -- she was 1-3 in slams the rest of '09, and 1-8 in WTA main draws after Oz -- but she DID manage to claim two $100K ITF events, her biggest wins since her last tour singles crown in '02, and finished the year at #57, her best year-end rank since 2003.

I said at the time that if the '09 Australian Open run turned out to be Dokic's last hurrah it'd be a shame, but if it WAS all there was then it was oh-so-right that, belated as it might have been, she'd finally had her "moment" in Melbourne. Back where she belonged, she NEEDED to experience the Australian fans' collective embrace of her after having come through the other end of so many troubles. A career "re-maker" or not, it was most definitely a personal triumph on Jelena's part. And, sometimes, especially after so much heartbreak, that's more than enough.

Of course, after having seen Dokic first rise to the occasion in the late 1990's/early 2000's, 2009 re-lit the fire of hope that had largely been dimmed for quite a few years for those of us who were in her corner oh those many years ago. She's eying a possible return to the Top 20 in 2010... and I know someone around here who'll be crossing his fingers hoping that her wish comes true.

1998 - #341
1999 - #43
2000 - #26
2001 - #8
2002 - #9
2003 - #15
2004 - #125
2005 - #351
2006 - #621
2007 - NR
2008 - #178
2009 - #57

1997 (Jr) - 2nd Rd. (lost to Rosenfeld)
1998 (Jr) - SF (lost to Prakusya)
1999 - 3rd Rd. (lost to #2 Hingis, world #2)
2000 - 1st Rd. (lost to Kuti Kis, world #86)
2001 - 1st Rd. (lost to #2 Davenport, world #2)
2006 - 1st Rd. (lost to Razzano, world #54)
2008 - Qualifying 2nd Rd. (lost to #6q Tanasugarn, world #117)
2009 - QF (lost to #3 Safina, world #3)

All for now.

PREVIOUS TIME CAPSULES: 1987 Roland Garros (Graf), 1989 Roland Garros (Sanchez/Chang), 1990 Wimbledon (Navratilova), 1990 Wimbledon (Edberg/Becker), 1991 U.S. Open (Connors), 1993 Australian Open (Seles & Courier), 1993 Wimbledon (Graf/Novotna), 2003/2005 U.S. Open (Henin/Clijsters)


Post a Comment

<< Home