LINZ, Austria, Oct 22 (Reuters) - Jelena Dokic was once the wondergirl of tennis, making headlines in 1999 when as a qualifier she humbled number one seed Martina Hingis in the first round at Wimbledon.
A Wimbledon quarter-final that year was followed by a semi-final the next, and in 2002 she was ranked number four in the world.
But she had baggage, a father whose erratic and threatening behaviour led to him being banned from the tour.
It was no secret to tennis insiders that his overbearing personality was directed as much against his daughter as it was against tour officials and others.
The WTA tour did what it could to protect her but eventually Dokic felt she had no choice but to flee from her family, a traumatic experience that led to a career collapse.
“I was on my own, and I was learning for two or three years what to do, where to go and who I could rely on,” she told Reuters in Austria, where she lost in the qualifying rounds for the Linz Open.
“Once you feel that you’ve lost your family you’ve pretty much lost everything. You can lose a match, you can lose a friend, but your family always stays with you. It took a long time to deal with and to realise exactly what I have, which was just myself.”
Years later, she still cannot speak about her father, referring to him as ‘somebody else’. But after floundering in the tennis wilderness, there are signs that the 25-year-old can finally regain her place in the sport.
This year she has won an impressive 35 of 45 matches. Most of those victories have come at low-level events but as a result her ranking has risen from zero to 187.
“Yes, it’s been good,” said Dokic, who was born in Serbia but now represents Australia.
“I’ve won a couple of tournaments. I’ve won a lot of matches this year and gone a couple of steps forward, which is the main thing.
“I just need to continue working hard and playing as many matches as I can get and continue to be there when things don’t go well.”
She has been inspired by what Andre Agassi and Jennifer Capriati achieved, doing the hard yards to come back from obscurity.
It has not been easy but she has stuck to the task, banishing her memories of competing on a packed Centre Court at Wimbledon as she plays in empty arenas in no-name tournaments.
“I feel like I am starting from zero,” she said. “You lose everything that you had before. The only thing you have to go on is experience. You lose the confidence and the match play and everything, so you really are starting from zero.
“It’s something that will take time but I think I’m getting there slowly. It’s been a lot better this year and I think next year will hopefully be even better. I’m slowly getting into that rhythm again and I think next year should be big for me.”
The tour has moved on, the standards are higher than when she rose to the top but Dokic feels she can still make an impact.
“I’ve practised with a couple of girls from the top 10, top 20. There’s work to do but it’s encouraging, and I feel I have the type of game that’s very aggressive and that can be in the top 20 again. I think that’s a realistic goal,” she said.
“It will not be easy for sure, but I don’t think it’s something I cannot achieve.” (Editing by Sonia Oxley)