"SCHOOL OF HARD KNOCKS"
Jelena Dokic is an expert at keeping her head when all around her are losing theirs. With such a worldly-wise approach to the game at the age of 18 she's well placed to offer some advice to an aspiring British junior.
INTERVIEW BY MELANIE SOUTH
Once upon a time, there was a little Yugoslavian girl who lived in Belgrade just down the road from a tennis club. Every day the little girl's father would go off to the tennis club and she'd trail along after him pestering for her chance to hit the ball. She pestered and she pestered until one day, when she was six, her father gave in and decided to let her try.
The little girl marched on to what seemed like a gigantic court, dragging what felt like a gigantic racket along with her. At first the little girl was really nervous because she'd never played tennis before and didn't know what to do. But when her father began throwing balls to her she hit each one right back into his hands and was so natural that her daddy said, "jeez, she's just got to play this game". The rest, as they say, is the stuff of fairytales.
Jelena Dokic convinced a tennis coach to admit her to tennis school four years shy of the admission age by beating all the boys in the class. Surrounded by her family she trained hard, emigrated to Australia in pursuit of the tennis dream and won the US Open juniors and the semifinals of the French Open juniors and the semi-finals of Wimbledon and the Australian Open juniors, and established herself as world No.1 in her age group. Jelena made an equally auspicious senior debut, reaching the third round of the Australian Open in 1999 and making the quarter-finals of Wimbledon at the first attempt (going one better the following year to notch up her first Grand Slam semi-final). In 2001 she reclaimed her Yugoslavian passport, set up home in Florida and won her first singles title in Rome.
Everything was rosy and it would have all having built up our heroine, grew keen to tear her back down again. Suddenly her father became the Bid Bad Wolf and she, Goldilocks, pinching the Aussie's porridge before running back to her homeland. With the press obsessing about everything from her family life, to her nationality, to the beauty spot on her chin there can be few players Jelena. Yet the young Yugoslavian bears it all with fortitude and focus, converting negatives to positives in her single-minded pursuit of tennis glory. Who better then to advise an aspiring British player on the peaks and pitfalls of a professional tennis career? In this special insight into the life of Melanie South interviews Jelena Dokic revealing a world that it tough, insular and often lonely but one in which devotion to hard work reaps rewards.
MELANIE SOUTH : Were you interested in any other sports when you were growing up?
JELENA DOKIC : At six when I started playing I didn't know that much about anything else, I
was very young. I used to do different things but tennis was the priority, then I had school
so I was busy from an early age.
MELANIE SOUTH : Do you remember the moment you decided to make tennis your career?
JELENA DOKIC : It's very hard to pinpoint because you have to train very hard for a few
years first, then you start playing tournaments. Before you know it, you are a tennis
player. A big step is deciding whether you want to compete because practice is a lot
different to playing matches which are so much more competitive.
MELANIE SOUTH : How did you juggle school work with your tennis?
JELENA DOKIC : When I was younger it was all right - I still went to school and there wasn't
much travelling yet. I was very good at maths - I didn't like it very much but I was good at
it - and I liked history too. When I got older and played more it got tougher. I used to
miss school for months, then try to come back to class and it was just too hard to keep up.
I started doing home school but eventually that was too difficult to fit in too. It's hard
to do school and tennis at the same time, especially at this level because I'm away ten
months of the year. No matter how much time I have I can never study in the middle of the
day because I always have to focus on my tennis whether it's practice or a match. It's very
hard to balance it all out."
MELANIE SOUTH : What did your school friends make of your tennis success?
JELENA DOKIC : At the beginning it was fun for them to have someone who had something else,
something different in their life and I think I got a lot of support from them. Later on it
because harder because once you become famous and someone else is not, you get people who
don't like that. Plus you're just not around so it's hard to keep in contact, even with the
friends you do have.
MELANIE SOUTH : Did that upset you?
JELENA DOKIC : You have things that you sacrifice but you also have things that you gain.
You have to find balance - you might not have frineds from school or have friends that will
support you there but you have friends on the tour. It's a different lifestyle altogether.
You make a lot of sacrifices but then you also get to do things that other people would
never get to do.
MELANIE SOUTH : What separates good amateur players from successful professionals?
JELENA DOKIC : Not everybody who shines as a child is competitive enough but I've always
liked competing. No matter if it's tennis or not I'm really competitive - even off court.
I'm a little bit more aggressive than the average 18 years old. You've got to be, tennis is
a tough sport, an individual sport.
MELANIE SOUTH : Why do you think Britain's women aren't more successful?
JELENA DOKIC : The English tennis players - I have to say this - don't work hard enough. I
see people all the time who think things are going to happen all by them selves but they won't
happen that way - you've got to make it happen. If you put the hard work into practice it will
come in matches. There will always be things that don't go great in your tennis and
there are some bad memories, but there are some good memories too and you've got to get past
the bad times and keep working hard.
MELANIE SOUTH : You play so intensively, don't you ever feel like giving training a miss for
JELENA DOKIC : Sometimes it's hard to get out of bed and practice every day. I hate running
but you get used to it. It is something that tennis players have to do so eventually it
becomes routine. I have days when I really want to play and days when I don't - that's
normal. You play tennis for 20 or 30 years, it's natural to be less enthusiastic sometimes
but I've never been bored enough or tired enough not to play.
MELANIE SOUTH : You look so fit, do you really get tired?
JELENA DOKIC : No matter how fit you are tennis is tiring physically and mentally and
sometimes more mentally than physically. Week in, week out you got to different places -
you've got to pack your bags every week, unpack them every week and you have to get used to
different climates, different cities, different cultures, everything. When you start playing
everyday, winning tough matches, that's a physical thing and also a mental strain.
MELANIE SOUTH : How do you block out the noise from the fans when you are playing?
JELENA DOKIC : You try not to be too fussy about things because if you are, everything
bothers you and you can't keep your mind on the game.
MELANIE SOUTH : Do you enjoy the travelling?
JELENA DOKIC : I don't mind it right now. I think I'll probably change my mind in a few
years time but at the moment I don't mind in a few years time but at the moment I don't mind
going from one place to another and one hotel to a different one, but a lot of players don't
like it. At the bigger tournaments you try to go and see something while you have time but
at the smaller tournaments you can forget about it, it's just too busy.
MELANIE SOUTH : What do you miss most about home?
JELENA DOKIC : Sleeping in my own bed and just feeling at home. It's very different sleeping
somewhere else from sleeping at home. My family travels with me tight now but when my
brother starts school again only one of my parents will go with me that get a little bit
hard. I miss my family a little bit then and do get a little bit lonely, especially as not
all the places are great to go to. But then there are other times when I am enjoying myself
too much to notice.
MELANIE SOUTH : I've been injured recently, any top tips for a quick recovery?
JELENA DOKIC : It's always hard with injury because you can't control it - it's something
that just happens - but then you've got to strengthen that part of the body so that it
doesn't happen again. Depending on where you're injured, you've got to rest well before you
try to come back. Do other things that help you keep fit, for example if you've injured your
foot go swimming because that won't hurt it. I don't like to have more than a couple of days
off because I'm used to training.
MELANIE SOUTH : How do you keep your body healthy?
JELENA DOKIC : I eat all right. You have to get your body used to what you are doing and you
have to keep each day the same - not over - eat one day and the next day not eat anything at
all. An athlete's body can't cope with that. I have the same things in the morning and for
MELANIE SOUTH : What would a typical day's meals be?
JELENA DOKIC : Sometimes I have cereal in the morning, sometimes something heavier like eggs
when I've been playing a lot or I'm hungry. For lunch I like protein, my family likes a lot
of meat so I'm used to eating that European style of food but when I'm playing matches every
day I change that and eat more carbohydrates like pasta and rice. I'm not really used to
eating in the evening, just fruit or if I do have something it will be light because I can't
sleep on a full stomach.
MELANIE SOUTH : Do you ever treat yourself?
JELENA DOKIC : I hate to admit it but I do it all the time. I have a sweet tooth, I really
like sweets and cakes in general, I just have to try the fancy-looking ones out, especially
if they're chocolate.
MELANIE SOUTH : What's the best piece of advice anyone has ever given you?
JELENA DOKIC : I've learned to really work hard. Before I always worked hard but I didn't
always put it into action in my matches. Now I do. If you get something to perfection in
practice eventually it's going to come in the match, you've just got to believe it. You
won't always win matches, sometimes you're going to lose, but you try your best out there
and if you lose occasionally, you lose.
About the Interviewer
Born in 1986 Melanie South began playing tennis at the age of four, inspired after picking
up tennis balls for her brother as he practiced. She's already amassed an impressive record,
reaching the third round of the 2000 Orange Bowl in Florida and winning the Sunday
Telegraph/tennis.net Junior Grand Prix 14&U Championships. A member of the LTA squad at the
Sutton Academy in Surrey, Melanie has been selected to represent Britain at the Junior
Olympics in Barcelona and to compete in ITF events in Holland and Portugal this summer.
In her spare time Melanie pens a column about her sporting adventures on www.tennis.net.