“It was hard… but I’m still here”

She was one of the world’s most cel­e­brated ten­nis play­ers, yet be­hind the scenes Je­lena Do­kic was suf­fer­ing bru­tal abuse from her fa­ther. Now, for the first time, she opens up about her years of agony

Sunday Herald Sun - Stellar - - Contents - In­ter­view by JES­SICA HAL­LO­RAN

For­mer ten­nis ace Je­lena Do­kic opens up about the years of emo­tional and phys­i­cal abuse she suf­fered at the hands of her fa­ther.

There was the time when Je­lena Do­kic was forced to sleep in the player’s lounge at Wim­ble­don. Her fa­ther, Damir Do­kic, had banned her from re­turn­ing to the ho­tel where her fam­ily was stay­ing, claim­ing she had brought shame on him for not win­ning her semi-fi­nal against Lind­say Daven­port. A cleaner found her asleep curled up in a small ball on a couch at the All Eng­land Club. She was 17.

Then there was the time Damir in­fa­mously threw salmon while at the US Open play­ers’ cafe, trig­ger­ing a painfully em­bar­rass­ing scene for Je­lena in front of hun­dreds of fel­low ath­letes, coaches and fans. Later that night, Damir drunk­enly or­dered his daugh­ter to call up the FBI and tell them the US Open au­thor­i­ties were “con­spir­ing against the Do­kics”.

Damir Do­kic was the ul­ti­mate ten­nis dad from hell. He would skol pint glasses of white wine be­fore watch­ing Je­lena’s matches, then drunk­enly shame her from the side­lines in Wim­ble­don, Mel­bourne Park and be­yond. He would force his daugh­ter to trans­late his drunken rants to jour­nal­ists about the Queen, Vladimir Putin and US pres­i­dents, de­cried ten­nis of­fi­cials as Nazis and gang­sters and claimed grand slam draws were rigged against his daugh­ter.

In the process, he be­came pub­licly in­fa­mous for be­ing the “mad dad” ac­com­pa­ny­ing his daugh­ter on tour. But now, for the first time, for­mer ten­nis ace Je­lena Do­kic has ex­panded on his an­tics in her new au­to­bi­og­ra­phy – and de­tailed the bru­tal phys­i­cal abuse she ex­pe­ri­enced at his hands from the time she was six years old. “When I tell peo­ple the hell

and abuse I en­dured pri­vately, they are shocked,” Je­lena tells Stel­lar. “It was hard to take, but I am still here.”

By the time she was a ris­ing ten­nis star in her teens, Damir was whip­ping Je­lena’s bare back with a belt al­most daily, es­sen­tially do­ing it when­ever he felt she had trained badly. (She of­ten hadn’t.) He spat in her face. He in­ces­santly slurred her as a whore, pros­ti­tute and bitch, and said she was dumb. He for­bade her from even hav­ing friends.

Ev­ery day Je­lena en­dured fear, vile words and vi­o­lence – yet in the face of this, she stayed fo­cused enough on her ten­nis that she man­aged, at one point, to be­come the No.4 player in the world. She pul­verised more ex­pe­ri­enced op­po­nents, in­clud­ing the likes of then­world No.1 Martina Hingis in 1999. She went on to make the semi-fi­nals of Wim­ble­don, win WTA ti­tles, and be­came the youngest player to rep­re­sent Aus­tralia at the Fed Cup. She was a gutsy, de­ter­mined tal­ent who loved the game. The Croa­t­ian­born Je­lena, whose fam­ily fled her war-torn home­land and em­i­grated to Aus­tralia in 1994, was sud­denly her­alded as this coun­try’s great­est ten­nis hope since Evonne Goolagong.

By the age of 18, de­spite mak­ing mil­lions and de­feat­ing some of the game’s best play­ers, she still could not sat­isfy her fa­ther. He was never pleased, and the beat­ings con­tin­ued. Af­ter a loss at the 2000 du Mau­rier Open in Mon­treal, Damir made her stand for hours on end, starv­ing her of food and re­peat­edly kick­ing her in the shins with his sharp-toed dress shoes. A blow to the head that night knocked her to the ground; while she was down, Damir kicked her in the head again. That bar­rage put her out cold for a few mo­ments.

“I am con­fused about some of the things that hap­pened,” Je­lena tells Stel­lar, while re­flect­ing on her fa­ther’s be­hav­iour. “I was do­ing well, re­sults-wise and mon­ey­wise. For me, at times, it wasn’t the phys­i­cal abuse that hurt the most. The pub­lic em­bar­rass­ment and [his] words would hurt more.

“I felt like an ATM ma­chine. That money was what was im­por­tant to him, rather than my well­be­ing. All I really wanted was a kind word from him, a lit­tle show of sup­port and love. He de­nied me that. I don’t think he re­alised he ru­ined me that way. I just wanted to play ten­nis in peace.”

Af­ter the shock­ing in­ci­dent in Canada, her fa­ther ad­mit­ted he had gone “over­board”. But Damir never apol­o­gised. And it is quite pos­si­ble that he never will.

Last year, she trav­elled to his ranch in Ser­bia – which was built with the mil­lions she earned on tour. Je­lena has a warm and for­giv­ing per­son­al­ity, and wanted to see if she could make amends. But the dis­cus­sion proved dis­ap­point­ing.

“I don’t think we will ever have a nor­mal re­la­tion­ship,” Je­lena con­tin­ues. “I don’t think it is pos­si­ble. I have given a lot of time, years, and chances for him to try [to] be a ‘nor­mal’ dad, but I just don’t think he is ca­pa­ble of it.”

And she has come to terms with the fact she may have to stop try­ing to change that. “I no longer have time and space for peo­ple that are not sup­port­ive or don’t show love,” she says. “I lost more than 15 years of my life be­ing depressed be­cause of it, ba­si­cally ask­ing my­self the ques­tion: ‘ Why doesn’t my fa­ther love me?’

“I al­ready lost the best years in ten­nis and my life deal­ing with this ques­tion. I am not go­ing to waste the sec­ond half of my life with that. I don’t need it. I know the peo­ple who are there for me and I don’t have time for peo­ple who don’t have my best in­ter­ests at heart.”

Along with ex­plor­ing her frayed re­la­tion­ship with her fa­ther, Je­lena’s mem­oir delves into the tri­als of life as a refugee; her early years were just as in­trigu­ing as her years on the tour. Je­lena re­counts how and why her fam­ily left her home­land, then known as Yu­goslavia, and sought refuge in a rat-in­fested shed in Ser­bia. When they first ar­rived in Aus­tralia, her fam­ily of four slept on a mat­tress on the floor of an apart­ment in sub­ur­ban Syd­ney, which it­self was over­run by cock­roaches. With lit­tle money to their name, they of­ten ate bread and but­ter sprin­kled with salt for din­ner. When she hit the Aus­tralian ten­nis cir­cuit, Je­lena en­coun­tered her fair share of racism. She says the book has “a lot about be­ing a refugee, be­ing bul­lied

“I felt like an ATM ma­chine. Money was more im­por­tant to my fa­ther than my well­be­ing”

in school and within the ten­nis com­mu­nity in Aus­tralia. A lot.”

But it would be Damir’s re­lent­less abuse that even­tu­ally forced his daugh­ter’s hand – and in 2002 she left the fam­ily home, de­part­ing in the mid­dle of the night with her then-boyfriend, For­mula 1 driver En­rique Ber­noldi, to live with him in Monaco. At the time, her younger brother Savo was just 11 years old; she says it broke her heart to leave him be­hind.

It was in the en­su­ing years, when Je­lena was fi­nally away from her fa­ther’s abuse, that she tells Stel­lar she really suf­fered. Damir plagued her with abu­sive phone calls nearly ev­ery day; he also sent his wife and Je­lena’s mother, Ljil­jana, to see her and con­vince her to come home. But Ljil­jana, who worked 18-hour days to fund her daugh­ter’s ca­reer in its in­fancy, was also a vic­tim of Damir’s abuse, and rarely in­ter­vened when he beat his daugh­ter. The two were all but es­tranged for many years af­ter Je­lena left home. (To­day they are on good terms.)

She ended up feel­ing even more alone than be­fore, be­cause while no-one could have in­ter­vened when it was just her and her fa­ther on the tour, she was struck by the fact that no­body who had wit­nessed Damir’s be­hav­iour both­ered to pro­vide sup­port af­ter she had left.

“I couldn’t talk about it when the abuse was hap­pen­ing,” Je­lena says. “I was too scared. But what I was dis­ap­pointed about from ev­ery as­pect in the sport – both in the world and Aus­tralia – was that once I did leave home, no-one came to me and said, ‘What do you need now to deal with this?’ Peo­ple knew I was strug­gling, even 10 years af­ter I had left. There was nowhere to go and nei­ther did any­one come and try [to] help me. I was vul­ner­a­ble.”

Je­lena never gave a de­tailed in­ter­view about the trauma and pain she was grap­pling with for nearly her en­tire life. As such, she says, “peo­ple were really in the dark as to what my life was about. In my tough­est mo­ments I bat­tled de­pres­sion and con­sid­ered sui­cide.”

Her mem­oir marks the first time she has pub­licly shared the depths of her pain and the ex­tent of Damir’s bru­tal­ity. “It made me feel a lot bet­ter, be­cause I had never really talked about it. And I feel bet­ter for do­ing it.”

As well as the cathar­sis Je­lena gets from telling her story, she has had a part­ner of nearly 15 years to help her sift through the painful mem­o­ries of her past. Tin Bi­kic is a loyal fig­ure, a man who she says has im­mense pa­tience and, most im­por­tantly, has demon­strated real love to her. “He has shown me true love, ab­so­lutely,” Je­lena says. “I al­ways wanted love, then I sud­denly found it. I am very lucky I found it with him.”

In re­cent years, Je­lena dou­bled her play­ing weight and ended up hit­ting the scales at 120 kilo­grams, a de­vel­op­ment ow­ing partly to a thy­roid is­sue. Tak­ing the weight back off has been an ex­haust­ing and chal­leng­ing process, but Je­lena has shed 30 ki­los so far. As part of her ef­forts to get in shape, she went back to the ten­nis court. That, in turn, stoked her com­pet­i­tive fires once more. Now 34, she is con­sid­er­ing a come­back.

“I will prob­a­bly come back to fin­ish on my terms,” she tells Stel­lar. “The first time I had to re­tire be­cause of in­jury, and I was also emo­tion­ally tired.

“My wish would be to go back on tour and really en­joy it,” she says. “Even when I last played I felt I had is­sues from the past – but that is not there now.”

If any­thing, Je­lena says she is de­ter­mined to trans­form a whole host of ter­ri­bly neg­a­tive life ex­pe­ri­ences into a last­ing pos­i­tive. “There is noth­ing I can change about what hap­pened,” she says. “I am the per­son I am to­day be­cause of all that phys­i­cal and emo­tional abuse and ne­glect. Was it dif­fi­cult? Did it leave a scar? Yes, it did. And it will be there for the rest of my life. This ex­pe­ri­ence gives me so much to learn from. I can do so many good things from that, whether it is the way I raise my fam­ily, do­ing char­ity work, help­ing oth­ers who have sur­vived fam­ily vi­o­lence.

“I think God gave this tough task to me be­cause he knew I could han­dle it. You have to find the pos­i­tive… which I couldn’t find for a very long time.”

“I am not go­ing g to waste the sec­ond half of f my life deal­ing with this”

COURTING Do­kic on court CON­TRO­VERSY at the 2000 Wim­ble­don (from left) cham­pi­onships Je­lena as her fam­ily (top right) looks on; Je­lena’s mother Ljil­jana, brother Savo, and fa­ther Damir at the 2001 DFS Clas­sic in Birm­ing­ham. Damir be­came known as “mad dad” for his volatile an­tics at the ten­nis; (op­po­site) the sport­ing ace with her fa­ther af­ter she de­feated def Martina Hingis at Wim­ble­don in 1999.

BOUNC­ING BACK (clock­wise from left) Je­lena wants to turn her neg­a­tive past into a pos­i­tive fu­ture; aged three with Damir at her grand­fa­ther’s house inin Croa­tia;croa­tia; thethe for­mer­former world­world No.no.44 play­er­player hashas found­found lovelove with­with Tintin Bi­kic.bi­kic.

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