Sunday, December 7, 2008

When promise is mismanaged

I never liked Jelena Dokic’s game. I don’t enjoy watching what I call go-for-broke-on-every-damn-shot kind of tennis. You know, where the player hits a flat ball as hard as possible into the deuce court and then you can predict without fail that no matter what the opponent does, the player will respond by going for an all-out-win by hitting a flat ball as hard as possible into the ad court. This pattern is repeated ad infinitum or for as long as it takes for the opponent to (a) make an error, (b) run out of steam, or (c) lose the match. It’s boring as hell to watch but, when done well, it works. And there was a time when Jelena Dokic was the best at this type of play.

Side-to-side, go-for-broke-on-every-damn-shot tennis works best when the player is at the top of her fitness because it demands a lot of the body. In fact, it is an aggressive type of play most frequently associated with injury. This is partly because it demands the ability to redirect the ball accurately and aggressively no matter how hard your opponent responds. It demands a great deal of speedy footwork and flat out sprinting. It requires an enormous lung capacity, an unwavering attention to ball placement, and an unerring focus. And there was a time when Jelena Dokic had all of these gifts and more.

Dokic used to make an odd nasal sound when playing that either added to her charm or served as an irritant depending on how you felt about her. The sound irritated me but I was already irritated by the predictable side-to-side-to-side, go-for-broke pattern of a game with no variation, no creativity, no alternative plan, no spin, few drop shots or lobs, mainly an unrelentingly flat pounding of the ball from one side of the court to the other, back and forth, on and on. So when you added the little nasal whinny, I often turned off the volume whenever Dokic played.

But Dokic’s nasal whinny was the least of the distractions around her back then. In late ‘90s, Dokic’s career was being managed by her father, the infamous Damir Dokic. My absolutely favorite Damir Dokic story involved his getting kicked out of the 2000 US Open after making a scene over the price of a salmon plate, accusing the WTA management of being gangsters and criminals. (I must admit that I felt the same way this summer after paying for overpriced Heineken and pesto cheese sandwiches, but I knew better than to go all Damir Dokic up in there.)

Whatever laughter was triggered by this particular Damir Dokic story quickly subsided the following day as I read news reports of his daughter sobbing the translations of her father’s Serbo-Croat tirades to the media over the telephone. She translated statements about having to fight the Jews in New York, and not caring if they put a bomb on the plane. Episodes like this and the one in which he was he was ejected from Wimbledon following a drunken outburst in which he allegedly broke a journalist’s phone, confirmed that Mr. Dokic was a loose canon. It was not long before his daughter’s career imploded.

Jelena Dokic owed a great deal of her success to an investment in her promise by Tennis Australia. The Dokic family had fled their war-torn homeland, and, by age 11, Jelena had been awarded Australian citizenship. No doubt Tennis Australia had detected the promise that, by 1998 saw Jelena become the #1 Junior in the world. She remained the darling of Australia when she teamed up with Australian Mark Philipoussis to win the Hopman Cup in 1999. She received a wild card into the Australian Open that same year and lost in the third round to then world #1, Martina Hingis.

Jelena Dokic's star continued to rise as she qualified for Wimbledon and avenged the loss against Hingis, spanking her 6-2 6-0 in the first round. I remember that match. Hingis seemed completely out of sorts and stories later emerged about her being distracted by a fight with her coach-mother. But Dokic’s domination that day was unquestioned. Dokic went on to beat Mary Pierce, then seeded 9th. Dokic eventually lost in three lop-sided sets to Alexandra Stevenson who was also enjoying a breakout year, and whose career would also soon deflate. More promise mismanaged but that’s for another column.

Things started unraveling for Dokic when she lost in the first round of the 2000 Australian Open to Rita Kuti Kis of Hungary whom she narcissistically dismissed as someone who “will never be a player”. For these statements she was roundly roasted by the media. But all eyes remained on the antics of her father who protested by returning his family to Belgrade, denouncing Australia as not having been supportive enough of his daughter. The narcissistic fusion between father and daughter was disturbing to watch. By early 2001, Dokic had registered for the Australian Open as a Yugoslav citizen. When she lost in the first round to Lindsay Davenport, Damir Dokic alleged that the draw had been rigged against his daughter. Lost in the chaos were his daughter’s statements of a similar belief and a threat to never again set foot on Australian soil.

In fact, Damir Dokic’s massive presence has always overshadowed his daughters’, and has distracted from her own erratic temperament and questionable decision-making. I have long believed that Jelena Dokic needs to be held more accountable for the mismanagement of her own promise.

In 2003, Dokic parted ways with her father and started being coached by Croatian Borna Bikić whose brother (Tin) she was also dating. By mid-2004, she had returned to her family but the transition was difficult and for a 4-5 month period in 2005/2006, reports claimed that she had literally disappeared. She resurfaced in Australia in 2006 requesting a renewal of her Aussie citizenship. She denied claims by her father that she had been kidnapped by her boyfriend. But her career has continued its downward slide, in part because of frequent injuries. Her attempts to rebuild her career have been encouraged by an inordinate number of wildcards. But she withdraws from as many matches as she actually plays. And she continues to complain about feeling inadequately supported, statements for which she has had made to apologize to Tennis Australia.

Ten years later, Jelena Dokic is once again begging Australia for yet another chance to help her reclaim the promise that resulted in her becoming a citizen in 1998. But Australian Open tournament director, Craig Tiley, has made it clear that this time he is setting limits for the conduct of the now 25-year-old adult woman. There will be no handouts and no funding. And while her verbal statements of apology have been accepted, he expects to see them backed up with action including her giving back to some of the Juniors in the same manner in which her own promise had been nurtured years ago. It’s too bad this was not done years ago. Both Dokic’s career and her emotional development may have been better off for it.


Alice said...

I am partial to that hard hitting go for broke style which you describe. Interesting perspective nevertheless, and well written article.

Wamut said...

Jelena's doing alright. She made small but significant gains last year with few wildcard handouts and is now back in the top 200 for the first time in 4 years or something.

The other week she won the Australian Open wildcard playoff and so has *earned* her wildcard in the Oz Open. She has a much better relationship with Australian media now and we're all here wishing her the best for the aussie season. Thesedays she just seems to want to play tennis. I think we should let her... :-)

tennischick said...

thanks for both of your comments.

i am very happy for Dokic that she qualified for the Aussie Open. i also hope she continues to mature so that she can deliver on her promise.

Anonymous said...

You don't like Jelena fine. But don't disguise that by disparaging her skills. She has a net game, she drop shots, lobs, hits top spin has drive volleys and is a good volleyer. She is an all court player winning titles on every surface; paints the lines hitting the ball deep moving her opponents from side to side is a strategy to tire them testing their fitness. She will move opponents front to back of the court too. Tennis is a running sport. Jelena's backhand down the line is textbook. Jelena trains very hard and has lots of skills and is continually disrespected by Aussies in media who dont stand up to the wta. ask a tennis coach about her skills obviously you're not. Dokic has a big game. bad calls, bad mgmt and terrible scheduling has ruined her career. But she's championship material she just played for the WRONG nations. She should have came to America she's got the focus, grit fight and all the skills. it's all there. Dokic was never lucky. ps. The austrailian school of sport was found guilty in a probe of abusing the kids who attended (this includes Jelena). She's not very accepted down there by those who run tennis and the media. seem to reek of xenophobia others like Molik, stubbs and stosur etc. naive born are not riduculed and made a fools on an international stage. Dokic doesn't owe Austrailia jack squat. Bug off about that.

tennischick said...

Excuses, excuses. This is why people don't learn and grown from their mistakes.