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AO Flashback: 2009 “changed my life,” says Dokic

  • Matt Trollope

Jelena Dokic describes her electrifying Australian Open 2009 run as a performance that got her “life back on track” after years of personal trauma.

Dokic was a 187th-ranked wildcard, yet upset seeds Anna Chakvetadze, Caroline Wozniacki and Alisa Kleybanova during that fortnight to reach her first Grand Slam quarterfinal in seven years.

She pushed then-world No.3 and eventual finalist Dinara Safina to three sets before bowing out, ending a run that captivated the country and restored her relationship with Australian fans.

Dokic, who last week turned 40, sat down for a wide-ranging interview with The AO Show podcast host Jon Hoevenaars, which has since been released as a bonus episode.

LISTEN: The AO Show podcast

The topic of AO 2009 inevitably arose, as it coincided with the full-match release of her unforgettable fourth-round win over Kleybanova on the Australian Open YouTube channel.

She said that remembering it, even 14 years on, gave her goosebumps.

"Australian Open 2009 changed my life,” Dokic said.

“And it changed my life when it comes to actually coming back to life, not just as an athlete, but as a person, (and) my relationship with the Australian fans and public.

“It was I think, to me, the best atmosphere I've ever had on a tennis court.”

Her succession of thrilling wins truly came from nowhere.

Earlier in her career Dokic peaked at world No.4, but she had not won a Grand Slam main-draw match since the 2003 US Open, nor appeared in the second week of a major tournament since Wimbledon in 2002.

In fact, the Australian – who switched to representing Yugoslavia in 2001 – missed almost four years of Grand Slam play as off-court issues took their toll. 

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"I struggled actually quite a bit going into that Australian Open (in 2009),” Dokic recalled. 

“Had a few years off, and I was dealing with a lot off the court, as well. Especially when it comes to my mental health, and I didn't play for a couple of years. So going into that Australian Open, I didn't know what I was in for.

"I did put in the work in the off-season, and I played the (Australian Open) wildcard play-off (in December 2008), which I won. And I felt like going into the tournament, I was in pretty good form, probably the best I was in for those last three or four years.”

Jelena Dokic Alisa Kleybanova Australian Open 2009 fourth round
An aerial view of a packed Rod Laver Arena during the Dokic-Kleybanova fourth-round match at AO 2009. (Getty Images)

Dokic, whose first opponent at AO 2009 was Tamira Paszek, revealed her goal had simply been to get through the opening round.

While it had been more than five years since she had won a Grand Slam main-draw match, it has been an even longer drought at Melbourne Park, dating back to 1999.

That year she was a 15-year-old phenom playing her first major tournament, advancing to the third round and facing eventual champion Martina Hingis at Rod Laver Arena.

She came extremely close to a win in 2006, holding a match point in the first round against Virginie Razzano and celebrating after striking what she thought was a forehand winner down the line.

It was called out. A second match point came and went, before Dokic faded to a 3-6 7-6(6) 6-1 defeat.

That was her only appearance in a Grand Slam main draw from 2005 to 2008.

"(Beating Paszek) was a massive win for me, personally as well, because I was going through so much,” said Dokic of her 6-2 3-6 6-4 win over the Austrian at AO 2009.

“And at the time obviously people didn't know; I only wrote about it five years ago in my book for the first time.

“It was such a special win for me, and to have that win at home was incredible. 

"But the run continued." 

Her matches became the hottest ticket in town, as the wildcard took down 17th seed Chakvetadze and No.11 seed Wozniacki in three-setters under lights at Rod Laver Arena.

The Wozniacki win sent Dokic into the fourth round at Melbourne Park for the first time, where Kleybanova awaited.

The 29th seed had beaten 2008 finalist Ana Ivanovic in the previous round, and Dokic knew the threat posed by the powerful Russian, a friend of hers with whom she frequently practised.

With the excitement and tension reaching fever pitch in the stadium, Dokic closed out a 7-5 5-7 8-6 triumph after more than three hours on court.

"Oh it was unbelievable. The biggest thing that stands out was the crowd, and the atmosphere. It was so special,” Dokic said. 

“It was in the previous matches as well, but when you get into those latter rounds of Grand Slams, especially when you've got such a tight match… the crowd was unbelievable. 

“I'm not sure I would have won that match if it wasn't for the crowd's support. I sprained my ankle as well in the third set. To come back and win from there... they were just pushing me and cheering for me and they got me over the line.

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"If you go to the match point of the Kleybanova match, and after I hit that return winner down the line … you just felt like Rod Laver Arena was shaking. 

“A few years earlier, I left (Australia), and then came back two years later. So it was very emotional, on a lot of levels, for me, but I think also for everyone else, and for my fans. and people that have supported me. 

“All of that went through my mind. To be welcomed back and embraced and have that opportunity to experience where people are behind me in that way, was incredible. 

“Something that will stay with me for the rest of my life.”

Jelena Dokic (R) shakes hands with Alisa Kleybanova after winning their fourth-round match at Australian Open 2009. (Getty Images)

The result vaulted her back inside the top 100, and Dokic would go on to play regularly for another three years, winning her first WTA title in almost a decade at the Malaysian Open in 2011 and climbing as high as world No.45 later that season.

She played her last official singles match in 2012 as injuries ultimately took their toll.

In 2017, Dokic released her autobiography Unbreakable, which she described as the best day of her life.

“I feel like I was finally free from a lot of the trauma and everything that I went through,” she explained.

"But at the same time, I think Australian Open 2009 for me was right up there, when it comes to changing my life and getting my life back on track. 

“It was that big step that I needed to be able to make those strides forward and then eventually pretty much 10 years later after that write my book and talk about everything openly.”


More in the AO Flashback series

> Remembering Andre Agassi's 2003 title, 20 years on
> Williams double-act lights up 2017 final
> Nadal's 2009 title-winning heroics
> The build-up to Federer and Nadal's gripping 2017 decider