Tennis: Wimbledon '99 - Dokic the smiling assassin

Wimbledon 99: Teenager is providing the silver lining as the clouds close in again
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The Independent Online
EVEN THE interminable rain at the All England Club over the last two days could not wash away the outstanding image of the championships so far: Jelena Dokic, a qualifier who has been the unqualified sensation of Wimbledon 1999.

Blonde, attractive and 16, she would have had the photographers' lenses twitching with moderate success, but she has disposed of the world No 1 Martina Hingis and Mary "The Body" Pierce and is now within touching distance of the final. They did not even know how to pronounce her name last week. They do now.

"It's hard to believe," Dokic (as in doe-kich), only the third qualifier to get to the quarter-finals since tennis went open in 1968, said. "If you'd told me two weeks ago I wouldn't have. It's a good achievement but I want more."

You can depend on that because Dokic has attacked the women's hierarchy these last nine days with an intensity that makes you understand why her former coach, Lesley Bowrey, once described her as a "trained assassin".

Chained to the baseline, she crashes into the ball like it is her enemy. Her forehand is formidable but might be the weaker wing, so many winners have flowed from the backhand side. "Jelena is 100 percent aggression," Bowrey said. "She goes for her shots and has the ability to hit the ball very hard and accurately." Hingis and Pierce will testify to that.

Dokic began playing at six when her father, Damir, saw Monica Seles on television and thought "if one Yugoslav can do that... " He bought a racket and for the next year they hit a ball to each other off a brick wall below their apartment. "Dad told me that from the first time I picked up a racket I always hit the ball right back into his hands and that's when he thought I may as well go for it," Dokic told an interviewer.

Her life since has been a series of youngest evers. After a year Dokic was defeating her father regularly and when she won an under-12 title in Yugoslavia her aunt sponsored the family's migration to Australia. "We came because life was hard there and secondly because the tennis was better here," she told the the Sydney Herald-Sun in 1998.

The 11-year-old girl, the only member of her family to speak English on their arrival in Sydney, soon showed her talents by winning an under- 18 tournament and gained national renown when she became the youngest women's player to represent Australia, winning both her singles matches, aged 15, in a FedCup tie against Argentina last July.

Judy Dalton, an Australian FedCup selector, said Dokic had not only shown her worth on court but also had given the older squad members a "lesson in intensity", while the former Wimbledon champion John Newcombe described her as "absolutely fantastic".

Dalton added: "I would hope Jelena is going to be somebody of the calibre of Martina Hingis. I've been to a lot of tournaments in eastern Europe and if they don't win, they don't eat. Even though she has lived in Australia for over three years she has still got that intensity."

Craig Miller spotted Dokic early on in Australia and immediately added her to the New South Wales squad. "When she goes on court, there's no second place," he said at the time. "What impresses me is Jelena's ruthlessness and her desire to win and there isn't a day in which she trains in which there's not 110 per cent.

"She puts so much intensity into hitting on a brick wall that it's frightening. A lot of kids are talented but not prepared to work hard, to step outside their comfort zone. Jelena is always out of her comfort zone."

Except that her comfort at Wimbledon appears to be growing with every day. She says she has just enjoyed the best two weeks of her life and can even reply to questions about winning the women's final on Saturday without total incredulity.

"That's going a bit far," she said and then went travelling. "Davenport, Novotna, Steffi, it's going to be tough. But I think beating Martina and Mary proves I can defeat the top players and it's given me great confidence. You've got to think you're unbeatable."

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