The state of Serbian tennis: Struggling Dokic reunited with controversial father; Jankovic, Ivanovic rise to take her place
By Nebojsa Petrovacki
Special to Tennisreporters.net
Jelena Dokic has returned home and is coached by her temperamental father, Damir.
In the docile foothills of Fruska Gora, some 40 miles northwest from Serbian capital Belgrade, a family reunion of some importance for the WTA Tour occurred last week. Namely, Jelena Dokic, 21, once the best European player and ranked No. 4, found ways to reconcile all the grudges she held against her colorful and controversial father, Damir.
With Dokic reunited with her family, Serbian tennis has already made major strides this year. Given that the small nation has one of the lowest gross domestic product ratings in Europe, after all the civil wars in the ‘90s (as well as the NATO bombing of ‘99), it's amazing that this Balkan nation has a potential to become a real tennis superpower in very recent future.
These hopes have been elevated with the successes two Serbian teenagers who are playing the best tennis in their young carriers. Jelena Jankovic, 19, upending Vera Zvonareva in the Linz quarters before falling in the semis to No. 2 Amelie Mauresmo. Jankovic who upset Elena Dementieva at the ‘04 Australian Open, has risen to a career high No. 29.
Perhaps the Serbian player with the most potential is 16-year old Ana Ivanovic, who has climbed more than 600 places in the rankings this year. A native of Belgrade, Ivanovic's talent was spotted very early by several Swiss coaches. From early childhood, she has spent her summers with her relatives in suburbs of Zurich. A few weeks ago, she hired a new tutor – Swiss national coach, Zoltan Kuharsky (a native of Hungary) – and the decision has already paid off. In Zurich and Luxembourg, she scored wins over Marlene Weingartner, Klara Koukalova, Jelena Kostanic, Tatiana Golovin, Anne Kremer and Shinobu Asagoe, all Top-100 players.
Dokic, who once pulled the biggest upset of the Open era at ‘99 Wimbledon by shocking then No. 1 Martina Hingis 6-2 6-0, has again commenced training under the guidance of her father, who once helped to the pinnacle of her young carrer two years ago.
“I think this is a good decision,” Jelena told TennisReporters.net in a phone interview from her father's 1,000-acre ranch. “I came back home, and the reason for that I would like to keep out of the media. What happened in the last two years is behind me and only for myself to consider.”
After the breakup with her father two years ago and brief stint with former Steffi Graf's coach Heinz Gunhardt, Dokic hooked up with a relatively unknown Croatian coach Borna Bikic. Coach and her pupil got along well, but her game, mental aptitude and psychological stamina hit the rock bottom during the previous 20 months. Some pundits speculated that Jelena deliberately started working with a Croatian coach, knowing how this will further alienate and infuriate her extremely nationalistic father.
Damir, a former truck driver, escaped with his family escaped from Croatia to Australia, in the wake of a bloody conflict between Serbian and Croatian military groups. He supported the ultra-nationalistic Serbian Radical Party, for whose leader – think of him as an aggravated version of former French presidential candidate Jean Marie Le Pen – Jelena wrote a letter of support under the influence of her father. Damir's white Mercedes sedan with Florida plates sticks out in the country where people in average earn some $400 a month. Also, its bumper is decorated with the photos of the International War Tribunal most wanted Bosnian Serb leaders Radovan Karadzic and general Ratko Mladic.
It seems that all the family feuds have been left behind, even though as recently as at this year's Roland Garros, Jelena reiterated how her father's constant pressure through the Serbian media have left her in mental ruin and that he is the main reason of her shattered self-esteem. However, now, the story line for Dokic family has changed dramatically.”Private life has to be in order so that a tennis player can reach her potential in the professional competition. From now on, I am training with my dad, the plan is already in place,” said Jelena.
Even though it wasn't quite clear from her statement if she broke all contacts with Borna Bikic and her brother with whom, rumors had it, she was romantically involved. It seems that her profound love for her brother and mother sealed the deal about her comeback to the home country. “I'm starting from scratch,” said Jelena, who hasn't won a match since April and has seen her ranking slide to No. 124. “There are some minor health issues I need to resolve, namely with my teeth and my tonsils. After that, I am going to practice here in Serbia until the start of the new season. I think that I will have plenty of time to get back on tracks, considering that I am far, far away from my best game.”
This last statement cannot be more to the point. Namely, Jelena's level of physical fitness has deteriorated immensely comparing to her best form, although even then she considered herself a bit of a slacker during the conditioning part of her tennis practices. And the new season for Jelena, as her father is eager to emphasize, once again will not start at the Australian Open next January. Due to Damir's constant clashes with the Aussie media, he thinks that Jelena is not treated fairly in Melbourne. Therefore, Jelena will first try her luck next February in Tokyo, which she once won, although she'll most probably have to get to the main draw through the qualifiers.
“We talked about everything,” Damir said. “What's done is done, we cannot undo anything at this moment. Jelena decided that it is in her best interest to be with her family. I know that she is a great tennis player, she has just experienced a small crisis during the last two years. It's about time that we rectify this situation and place Jelena once again at the top of the tennis world, where she belongs.”
After staying unbeaten for 24 straight matches at Futures and Challengers from Tokyo to ex-Soviet republic of Georgia, Ivanovic deserved the chance to show her skills at the top stage at Tier I Swisscom Challenge held in Zurich two weeks ago. Her biggest weapons are a powerful serve and accurate groundstrokes. Since she is a six-feet tall, she often attacks the net. However, her forays need major improvement if she is to approach her level of play to the one of her idols, Roger Federer.
She lost to Venus Williams in Zurich in two tiebreaks, after having two set points in the first set and three in the second. After leading 6-5 in the first-set tiebreak, she missed an easy volley.
“I was just exhausted. I simply didn't hit the ball as I should have,” she said. “The only times in the match when Venus really played flawlessly were the ones when I was up in the tiebreaks. The match was so excruciating. I think that, if it went to the third set, both Venus and I will just lie down on the carpet and rest a little bit before the start of the final battle.”
Venus lost in the quarterfinals to Maria Sharapova, and Ivanovic was left pondering her future at the WTA Tour.
“Honestly, I will be happy if I reach Top 50 at the end of the next season, considering the constraints in the number of tournaments I can play at the age of 17,” said Ivanovic, who has cracked the Top 100 at No. 96. “But, my coach thinks that in several months I can easily be in Top 15. This tournament assured me that I can really play against the best players in the world. This would mean a lot to me as my carrier progresses.”
Like Dokic, Ivanovic has crossover appeal and has been said by some to be a brunette version of Anna Kournikova.
“Kournikova is a very talented player, she played the semis at the Wimbledon. … But, she wasn't able to recuperate from her back injury, so she started making money in show business. I really don't see myself as anything but a tennis player for quite some time in the future,” said Ivanovic.
Whether the Serbian Tennis Federation will benefit from three players that might make its Fed Cup team quite formidable is an entirely different topic. After abysmal showing at the qualifiers for the World Group last spring in Athens – where Dokic withdrew in the very last moment before the decisive match against Bulgaria, not leaving enough time for the coach to make necessary adjustments in the roster, thus forfeiting the point from that match – the relationship between the players and the folks in federation is more than strained. Dokic's father does not like the federation and former Top-20 player Slobodan Boba Zivojinovic. That in itself is sufficient for Jelena to avoid playing for Serbian team.
Ivanovic's coach already requested the Swiss nationality and passport for his protégé, although Ana said last week that she will always consider herself a Serbian and that – even if she gets a Swiss passport – it will be only out of convenience for her tennis travels. Jankovic was always ready and willing to help the Serbian Fed Cup team, but, after the clash she had with Dokic's then coach Bikic in Athens last spring, she might rethink her decision to play for this potentially great Fed Cup team.
Better days are definitely coming for Serbian women's tennis. A country that gave Monica Seles to the tennis world might not have resources to keep its players from defecting to richer countries, but it will never be without a healthy dose of the talent.
Petrovacki is the US-based sports editor of Sportska Centrala, a sports news agency of Serbia and Montenegro.