Commentary

Brand new chapter for same old Jelena

Jelena Dokic's journey from a torrid past and severe depression to the quarterfinals of the Australian Open is another amazing chapter in her life and one of the most remarkable stories in recent memory.

Updated: January 26, 2009, 12:29 PM ET
By Kamakshi Tandon | Special to ESPN.com

MELBOURNE -- The popular soap operas "Neighbours" and "Home and Away" normally dominate early-evening programming Down Under. But for the past week, they have been completely overshadowed by that other great Australian melodrama: Jelena Dokic.

The 25-year-old, born-again Australian is currently acting out the most amazing chapter of her turbulent career, reaching the Australian Open quarterfinals as a wild card ranked No. 187.

She even earned her spot in the draw the hard way, playing six matches in seven days to win Tennis Australia's wild-card playoffs in December.

Dokic next faces formidable No. 3 seed Dinara Safina, and whatever happens in that match, her run will end up being one of the most remarkable in recent tennis history. The former No. 4 has not played regularly on the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour since 2005 and had not won a Grand Slam match since 2003.

But if you've got it, you've always got it. That's according to Serena Williams, who knows a thing or two about coming from nowhere to recapture past glories -- she won the Australian Open in 2007 ranked No. 81 in the world.

"Hopefully, she can be motivated by what I did," said Williams. "I was noticing when she was playing, looks like the same Jelena. That's really good to see, that she didn't lose any of her game or her fighting spirit. It's awesome."

On court, Dokic's journey this past week has been eventful. She has gone three sets in each of her four matches at Melbourne so far, defeating three seeded players.

Off the court, it has been emotional. She has spoken openly about her struggles to get her life and career back on track after deciding to break away from the influence of her notorious father, Damir.

"I battled severe depression for about two years," she said after her opening win. "Didn't play for months at a time, was really seriously thinking about not playing.

"It was a tough time in my life. I had a lot to go through, a lot of family issues. It's really a miracle for me."

The nightmare has now turned into a fairy-tale, and within the space of a week, she has turned around both her career and her relationship with the Australian public.

[+] EnlargeJelena Dokic
AP Photo/Rick StevensNormally stoic, Jelena Dokic can't help but let the emotions get to her.
Dokic's renaissance has been the story of the tournament Down Under, her prime-time matches dwarfing even the Big Four on the men's side and the upsets of Venus Williams and Ana Ivanovic in the women's draw. The warmth with which the public has embraced her run is remarkable considering the torrid history involved.

Dokic's name was known in Australian tennis circles by the time she was in her early teens, but she shot to national attention by winning the Hopman Cup with Mark Philippoussis in 1998 and reaching the third round of the Australian Open a couple of weeks later.

But soon it was father Damir who was grabbing most of the headlines. In June 1999, he was evicted from the tournament in Birmingham and charged with drunk and disorderly conduct after he lay down in the middle of the road in protest.

In 2000, he broke a TV reporter's cell phone by flinging it to the ground and was thrown out of the U.S. Open after losing his temper over the price of food in the players' restaurant.

Though Dokic continued to defend him publicly, she was fearful of her father and tried to avoid his company. Wimbledon officials once found her asleep on a couch at the All England Club, trying to avoid going home until as late as possible.

When Dokic drew defending champion Lindsay Davenport in the first round of the Australian Open, Damir claimed the draw was rigged and that his daughter would represent her native Serbia from now on.

When she entered the stadium introduced as "from Yugoslavia, Jelena Dokic," the crowd booed unmercifully.

Dokic created more distance from her father after beginning a romantic relationship with Formula One driver Enrique Bernoldi and hiring Borna Bikic to be her coach. But her career plummeted and stability remained elusive.

She returned to Australia in 2005 and earned a wild card into the 2006 Australian Open, falling to Virginie Razzano after holding a match point that she lost on an umpire's overrule.

Dokic fled the country again, ending up at Nikki Pilic's academy in Munich. That too was short-lived, with Dokic soon returning to Bikic and his brother Tin Bikic, her boyfriend.

Except for the occasional tabloid story, she disappeared from sight until the end of 2007, when she again showed up to contest the wild-card playoffs. After being forced to pull out of the playoffs with injury, Dokic lost in Australian Open qualifying and criticized Tennis Australia officials for not giving her a wild card.

But she had positive results in minor league events the rest of the year and signaled her progress with her success in the wild-card playoffs in December.

Her return to the fold has been helped by the private and public apologies, and the pride with which she now speaks of playing for Australia.

"I will regret the decision that I made [to leave]. I can say that I made it under the influence of my dad, but I will regret leaving for the rest of my life," she said. "I'm trying my best. I'm fighting and playing for this country. I'm proud to play for this country again."

Winning has helped the reconciliation, too. Apart from Sam Stosur and Casey Dellacqua, this tennis-mad nation has only a limited presence on the women's tour.

Dokic's goal of returning to the top 50 and perhaps top 20 sounded ambitious just a couple of weeks ago, but now seems distinctly possible if she can maintain something resembling her current form.

That will not be easy, of course, because it involves playing well week after week in conditions far removed from the magical atmosphere of her recent night matches in Rod Laver Arena.

Damir Dokic
Ross Kinnaird/Getty ImagesJelena Dokic's turbulent father, Damir, has been ostracized from tennis events and banned from her life.
But it will be hard to discount her after this giant leap forward. "To come after a three-year layoff and to be in the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam straight away really gives you a lot of confidence," said Dokic. "When I get my match fitness back to 100 percent and physically and still mentally improve and get stronger, we'll see."

She has retained her fearless power hitting and seems to have a little more touch than before: "I think I have a better game than I used to. I really mix it up a lot and worked on my fitness."

Her plans for the rest of the year will have to be torn up and redrawn. "After the Open [is] finished, we're going to sit down and make a schedule, because everything changed," said Borna Bikic.

The quarterfinal run has helped counter Bikic's reputation as something of a career-destroyer -- he has also worked with the once-promising Karolina Sprem -- and vindicated his faith in Dokic.

"I cannot say I expected this, but I'm very proud of her, the way she's handled it," Bikic said. "I always believe in her, that she can play good. And she worked hard in the offseason."

The picture is not all rosy. She has been on the cover of Melbourne tabloids this week for reasons other than her wins -- a report surfaced about money she allegedly owes the family of a convicted (now deceased) drug trafficker who was acting as her manager during 2006. Whatever the truth of that situation, other loose strings from her past may remain.

Father Damir has also been heard from again, expressing regret for the past and saying he would like to return to Melbourne for the final if Dokic gets that far.

His daughter, however, has no desire to re-establish a relationship, saying the two haven't spoken in years. "I've said always my whole story with him is finished. It would have to be an unbelievable miracle for him to change. I don't see that happening," she said.

But Dokic is trying to reconnect with the rest of her family, with whom she became estranged when she left Serbia. "I talk to my mom. We're mending that relationship," she said. "The biggest thing I regret is my brother, who is eight years younger than me. I didn't have contact with him for years until the last 12 months. That was the hardest thing to deal with."

The years of torment have made her face an expressionless mask, but the shell has cracked a little more with each victory at Melbourne Park.

She did not smile after her first-round victory over Tamira Paszek, simply sobbing into her towel at the end of the match. The reaction after her second-round win against former No. 5 Anna Chakvetadze was a little more joyous, and she was positively ebullient after taking out fast-rising No. 11 seed Caroline Wozniacki.

The fourth-round win over Alisa Kleybanova was the most dramatic yet -- Dokic came from a break down in the third set and managed to finish the match despite rolling her ankle in the 10th game. By this time, the fist pumps were flowing; she was smiling with ease and looked like any other player on the run of her life.

After all Dokic has been through, that return to normalcy might be her biggest comeback of all.

Kamakshi Tandon is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.