AS MOST of the top seeds advanced to the later rounds, a theme of rebirth rang through the first week of the Australian Open. In fact, casual fans surveying the field in Melbourne could be forgiven for thinking they had come across a draw sheet from another year. There was Japan's Kimiko Date Krumm, a former top 10 player who retired in the mid-1990s. Having snaked her way through the qualifying tournament, she was playing her first Grand Slam event in 13 years. (Date Krumm, 38, nearly upset 25th-ranked Kaia Kanepi of Estonia before losing in three sets.) Belgium's Xavier Malisse, a top 20 player in 2002 who'd fallen out of the top 100 and was considered washed up, also qualified for the main draw. He won a match and gave Andy Roddick a fight in the second round. Then there was serve-and-volleyer Taylor Dent of the U.S., who returned from what was thought to be a career-ending back injury and played in his first major in three years.
But the real Mickey Rourke performance was turned in by Jelena Dokic, the former teenage star who was born in Croatia but moved to Australia as a child. Though she was a top 5 player in 2002, Dokic was known less for her game than for the antics of her father, Damir, who was abhorrent even by the limbo-bar standards of tennis. Among his many bizarre outbursts, Damir was ejected from the 2000 U.S. Open for violently protesting the price of salmon in the players' cafeteria. "I went through hell and back," Jelena says. "I kind of just cracked by the time I was 19."
Off the circuit for three years, living part of that time in Europe, Dokic went months without picking up a racket and says she "battled severe depression for about two years." Estranged from her father, she returned to Australia in 2007 and set about rebuilding her career. Though ranked a lowly 187, she received a wild-card entry in Melbourne. Still a vicious ball striker at 25, Dokic beat three seeds last week to reach the quarterfinals. She was the toast of the tournament, fielding book offers and an invitation from Australia's equivalent of Oprah.
While Dokic's circumstances are extreme, the trajectory of her career is not. As tennis becomes ever more taxing, both physically and emotionally, the sabbatical is almost de rigueur. If the typical career arc once resembled a parabola, it now resembles an M, as players rise, crash, heal and stage spirited returns. Few stars can survive without an interruption—take Maria Sharapova, whose bum right shoulder has kept her from playing for six months—but they eventually reappear, adding a few years to their careers on the back end.
"An extended break is something the body really needs to regenerate," says James Blake, who missed most of 2004 with injuries and, not coincidentally, is still going strong at age 29. (He made the fourth round in Melbourne.) "It does make [you] feel a little younger in what I like to call 'tennis years,'" Blake says. Somewhere, one hopes, Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin are taking notice.
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