Dokic puts on brave face as she embraces the Damir dilemma

On court it is always Father's Day when your name is Jelena. Ronald Atkin discusses a family crisis that won't go away
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You would like to think life could not be sunnier for Jelena Dokic. A month after her 18th birthday in April she won the first title of her professional career, and a big one it was, too, the Italian Open in Rome. Now she is heading for a favourite tournament, Wimbledon ("a great place, great people"), the scene of some of the most spectacular achievements of her young career.

So Jelena is happy, right? Wrong. The boorish behaviour of her dad, Damir, still casts a chill, baleful shadow over what should be a warm, pleasant time in her young life. Jelena's attractive face only has a nodding acquaintance with the act of smiling. Every media question is received on the back foot. She hates Australia, the adopted land which developed her tennis skills and on which she has turned her back, and many in Australia return that animosity.

Dokic's Wimbledon preparations took a knock last week when she lost her opening match at the Birmingham tournament. Inevitably, the defeat came against an Australian, Alicia Molik, who wished Jelena good riddance while criticising her switch back to Yugoslav citizenship. "Jelena had all the help she needed from our governing body, Tennis Australia, when we were both juniors," said Molik. "I'm baffled by her decision. You'd have to sit down with her, preferably without her father, to ask her why."

The father again. Always the father. In March Damir Dokic completed a six-month ban imposed by the WTA Tour for drunken, violent, abusive and boorish behaviour at Wimbledon and the US Open last year and at Birmingham two years ago. Since his return to courtside Damir has managed to keep the lid on his volcanic temper, but living in expectation of him blowing his top again must be equally as stressful to Jelena as remaining publicly loyal.

But loyalty is what Jelena is demonstrating, outwardly at least, though she agrees that dad's absence from her side during the suspension was no bad thing. "It has made me more mature, a tougher person mentally," she said at the French Open two weeks ago. But the defiant loyalty rapidly surfaced, as it always does. "It makes a difference when you have someone out there who works with you all the time, someone you've had with you your whole life."

Despite a presence which Jelena insists is beneficial and most of the tennis world considers harmful, she has made significant progress this year. Now freed by her 18th birthday from the WTA's restrictive regulations regarding the number of tournaments she can appear in, Dokic broke into the top 20 for the first time by winning Rome and was chosen the women's tour player of the month for May.

Rome, she feels, was a watershed. "I always set myself goals as I go along and this was the biggest hurdle for me so far," she said after an impressive straight-sets win over the year's most successful player, Amélie Mauresmo, in the final. "Getting inside the top 20 makes a massive difference. My new objective is top 15, but the top 10 is not far away." Nor, she feels, is success at a Grand Slam. "Hopefully it is only a matter of time. I definitely have a chance because I have beaten a lot of the top players recently. That's where I have improved so much over the last six months or so. My game is now at a higher level."

Of course, the top player she defeated most famously was Martina Hingis, thrashed 6-2 6-0 in the first round of Wimbledon two years ago, a victory which propelled the 16-year-old into a media spotlight rapidly usurped by her father. Last year's Wimbledon was even brighter for the daughter, with a semi-final berth. It was again wrecked when dad was escorted off the All England Club premises after smashing a reporter's mobile phone. He was arrested at the US Open last September following a rumpus in the players' restaurant, after which he called the WTA's chief executive, Bart McGuire, "a communist pig", rubbished New York as "dirty and bad-smelling" and said America's heart was made of "cold concrete". Dokic is by no means the first to become well-known through parental misdemeanour before results. It happened to Mary Pierce and, to a lesser extent, Steffi Graf, the player Jelena admires above all others for her work ethic. The Williams sisters, too, spend a lot of time under media scrutiny for things that happen off court, albeit it by choice. Dokic, alas, has been thrust on to a part of the stage she would prefer not to inhabit.

The WTA's age eligibility rules, implemented in the wake of burn-out suffered by such as Andrea Jaeger and Tracy Austin, were designed to protect the bodies of growing females rather than their mental state. But imagine the turmoil in Jelena Dokic's mind at the Australian Open this year when, after an all-night family conference also involving his wife Liliana and nine-year-old son Savo, Damir announced an intention to sever all connections with the country he had come to from Serbia in 1994, finding work as driver of a petrol tanker until his daughter's blossoming tennis talent rendered such employment obsolete.

With familiar histrionics, Damir denounced Tennis Australia officials as "Nazis" and claimed the draw which pitted his daughter against Lindsay Davenport in the first round had, for the second year, been rigged to her disadvantage. Many Australian radio listeners phoned in, offering to drive the Dokic family to the airport.

Jelena turned up in Belgrade, the city of her birth, soon afterwards for a photo-opportunity presentation of a Yugoslav passport, though she has not been back since, preferring to base herself at the four-bedroom home bought last year with her winnings in the Florida resort of Saddlebrook, where Jennifer Capriati and Hingis are also in residence for much of the year.

The Dokic intentions about international commitment remain unclear. She would not be eligible to represent Yugoslavia until 2003 and the door, it seems, has not yet been fully closed on Australia, either.

WTA officials are at pains to deflect questions about this, as well as about her father, but in Rome Jelena claimed: "Australia is not an issue for me right now." Then she said, "Um, I don't know", when the question was repeated before taking another tack: "I don't think I will change my mind." As Jelena prepares to play the Dutch grass court event in Rosmalen in readiness for her third tilt at Wimbledon she will also need to be prepared to be asked again and again about Damir and Australia. Both questions need an answer soon.