Dokic: the dad has gone but the demons remain

It seems strange to feel sorry for a stunning and talented young woman who is in love, though Jelena Dokic insists she is not in need of anyone's sympathy, pity or anything else. In love, and in residence in Monaco, with a handsome Brazilian racing driver, Enrique Bernoldi, free of the tempestuous presence of her volcanic father, Damir, and turned 20 last month.

So Jelena is happy, right? Wrong. This former elf, transformed into a startling beauty, still peers out at the world from behind a barricade of suspicion. Media questions are treated as if tipped with curare. One-on-one interviews are a matter of painstaking negotiation, hedged about with restrictions on what may not be mentioned, such as her dad.

It is all very sad. Even worse, this year it has affected her tennis. Defeat in the first round of the Italian championships in Rome last Monday tipped her season into deficit (11 matches won, 12 lost) and, having been fourth in the world eight months back, she is now clinging to the fringes of the top 10. That Rome match, against the 31-year-old Conchita Martinez, was painful to behold. Martinez, though a former Wimbledon champion, is now a purveyor of trundling, energy-conserving stuff, all slices, lobs and moonballs. Time and again, Dokic slammed these risible offerings beyond the confines of the court and duly subsided. As she remarked, beaten by herself.

Having dismissed the demonic Damir from courtside and coaching, Dokic is struggling to reshape her game under the tutelage of the Swiss Heinz Gunthardt, who worked for so long with Jelena's idol, Steffi Graf. After agreeing a deal last November, they began working seriously in January, when the rest of the women were competing in Australia.

So how's it going with the new coach, Jelena? "It is looking better than I hoped," she ventured, perched on a couch in the lobby of the luxury Hotel Parco dei Principe just off the Via Veneto. Indisputably, Dokic has found the switch difficult. "I think it's different when you're getting coached by someone in your family. Heinz's practices are intense. He wants discipline, makes me work a lot and asks for a lot, which is good. But I have had to get used to all this. Eventually it will get better and better."

But for now it is looking decidedly bleak. "It has been like this the whole year. I've had some close matches, but I've lost. My confidence is down, but hopefully I'll get out of it quick. Heinz has changed some things but I can't seem to get it together in matches. I think I'm a better player, but mentally I'm not like I was before." Then that Serbian defiance set in. "Anyway, I don't think it's such a big deal. I'm not gonna cry about it all day and all night. You have to play through it, you have to train through it. I think eventually it will go away."

It is strange indeed that, under the influence of Damir, someone who merits a podium place on the list of hellish tennis dads, Dokic flourished despite the need to defend his well-documented transgressions, which culminated in suspension by the Women's Tennis Association, and what turned into a gypsy existence. Having fled war in Serbia at 11 with her family, Dokic settled in Australia, became a world junior champion and announced herself to the senior world as a 16-year-old Wimbledon qualifier by thrashing the world No 1, Martina Hingis.

Australia went sour when Damir accused Tennis Australia of rigging the draw at the Open against his daughter, who had been coached in that country by such distinguished people as Tony Roche and Lesley Bowrey. The family left the country, with people ringing radio stations with offers of lifts to the airport to help them on their way, and decamped to their property in Saddlebrook, Florida, before returning to Belgrade, where Jelena was born. The family are still there, while Jelena gives her abode as Monaco. "It is where I will stay now, for sure."

Since then, Dokic has declined to play in Australia, though it was recently reported that "a family source" indicated she would be interested in representing Australia at the 2004 Olympics. That was possibly an example of Damir stirring it, as he did with another comment that Jelena wanted to come to live in Britain.

When the Australia rumour was put to Dokic, she said: "I never said anything", before a WTA official monitoring our interview halted the line of questioning: "It is something Jelena is not speaking about at the moment." However, she revealed that Gunthardt is planning a new itinerary for her, and that a possible return to playing in, perhaps rather than for, Australia is "something I will look at eventually". For the moment, addressing her slump, with the French Open imminent and Wimbledon looming, is the priority. "I have won five tournaments and done well at Grand Slams. I have continued to go up the rankings, top 10, top five, so I have proved to myself that I can play at that level. But I think I can do more, especially being just 20." She pronounces it "twenny" in an American accent which has ousted the Australian one.

"I started the tour at 14, so I had to grow up a bit quicker than most. But I don't think I have reached my peak yet. I still have a long way to go to develop physically and mentally and in tennis generally." For now, there is the love and companionship of Bernoldi, a former Formula One driver with the defunct Arrows team and now a competitor in the Nissan World Series, the equivalent of Formula 3000. It just has to be better than life with Damir and, as my WTA monitor said: "She's a top young lady and there's a heart of gold in there". Perhaps it will prompt a revival in her tennis soon.

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