Jelena Dokic believes she owes a lifetime debt to Australian fans who helped pull her back from the brink of private and professional oblivion.
The 26-year-old reignited her love affair with the public when she enjoyed a magical run to the Australian Open, capturing the imagination as stories emerged of her being left penniless after splitting from her domineering and controversial father Damir.
Her return to the country’s embrace was a radical transformation for a girl who was ostracised for once turning her back on the country.
“My actions were not acceptable, but they were my dad’s decisions, and I was not mature enough to do what I wanted,” she said.
“I hope people understand. It was very difficult for me to come back and play.
“Those people in Australia have probably brought my career back on track. I will be grateful to them for the rest of my life.”
Dokic had even more reason to celebrate on Tuesday when she returned to the French Open for the first time in five years.
She beat Slovenia’s Karolina Sprem 3-6, 6-1, 6-2, a remarkable performance given the latest turmoil involving her estranged father, who has been charged with threatening the Australian ambassador to Serbia and illegal possession of firearms.
But she refused to discuss her family strife.
“I’m not answering any questions regarding my father or regarding my personal life, at all,” said Dokic.
“I’ve answered a lot of questions over the last four or five years. I think everybody knows the story.”
Dokic, a quarter-finalist here in 2002, will now face Russian fourth seed Elena Dementieva for a place in the last 32.
“No-one can say I’m the favourite,” Dokic added. “On paper, she should probably win easily. There’s absolutely no pressure in that match, and I can just go out and try and do my best.”
Dokic was a former world number four in her prime, but is now ranked at 80.
She won more than three million US dollars in prize money in the first stage of her career, when she was a teenage prodigy who reached the Wimbledon semi-finals in 2000.
But she lost the money when she split from Damir, who she blames for her downfall, and was reportedly even sleeping on the floor of a Melbourne apartment as she prepared for this year’s Australian Open.
The goodwill shown to Dokic, who shot to fame at Wimbledon in 1999 when she knocked world number one Martina Hingis out in the first round, was evident here on Tuesday with a huge crowd squeezed into the compact Court Six.
“A lot of people were outside the court and when I practiced. For someone who has been absent for five years, it’s really nice to see that people were there,” she said.
“I honestly didn’t think that many people would watch when there are a lot of players playing.”