'I don’t want pity': Je­lena Do­kic side­steps blame game to find own voice

The Guardian Australia - - Sport - Kate O'Hal­lo­ran

Thanks to her fa­ther Damir, Je­lena Do­kic has had a no­to­ri­ously strained re­la­tion­ship with the me­dia. From cov­er­age of him threat­en­ing US Open staff over the price of fish, to drunk­enly smash­ing a re­porter’s phone at Wim­ble­don or claim­ing the Aus­tralian Open draw was rigged against her, the me­dia have been happy to em­brace Damir as an oafish buf­foon, ripe fod­der for a click-bait head­line or car­toon.

For a young Je­lena Do­kic, still un­der­age when these in­ci­dents oc­curred, the re­ports were a source of deep shame and em­bar­rass­ment – largely be­cause she was un­able to tell the pub­lic the truth. In her bi­og­ra­phy Un­break­able, she re­counts how Damir would in­sist she trot out his own dis­torted world­views at press con­fer­ences.

“When he made all those pub­lic rants, I had to cover for him and say what he wanted,” she tells the Guardian. “I know the me­dia thought I was a brat and ar­ro­gant. That was re­ally hard for me, be­cause I was ac­tu­ally the op­po­site.”

Un­be­known to most around her, Do­kic was en­dur­ing un­speak­able emo­tional and phys­i­cal abuse at the hands of her fa­ther – in­clud­ing reg­u­lar beat­ings and whip­pings that on one oc­ca­sion left her un­con­scious. But this side of her fa­ther re­mained con­cealed.

“The me­dia would joke about ev­ery­thing he did. But it wasn’t funny. If you look at [those in­ci­dents] – he was ag­gres­sive, he was drunk, he was scary. No one ever asked: how far does this go? What else does he do?”

At the time, she wanted to tell the truth about his abuse, but feared for her life should she do so. “A lot of peo­ple didn’t un­der­stand me,” she says. “[But] I al­ways thought, I’m go­ing to write about this one day, I’m go­ing to get the story out about what hap­pened.”

And so, in a twist of fate, Do­kic – now aged 34 – has ap­proached the me­dia with open arms, wel­com­ing rather than shy­ing away from the spot­light again. She says the pub­lic re­ac­tion to her book – which has made head­lines world­wide – has been some­thing of a shock, given how ac­cli­ma­tised she had be­come to the abuse.

“I knew it would be big, but I didn’t know it would get such a re­ac­tion. For me, it’s more nor­mal than it is to other peo­ple, be­cause I’ve lived it, dealt with it for such a long time. The sup­port has been in­cred­i­ble, and I feel good [hav­ing the story out there].”

She is aware her story has prompted, and will con­tinue to prompt, ques­tions as to why or how oth­ers could have in­ter­vened, but Do­kic wants to make clear this is not

about any per­sonal vendetta. The book was in­stead writ­ten to in­cite change for oth­ers who are ex­pe­ri­enc­ing fam­ily vi­o­lence.

“It’s not about point­ing fin­gers, I’m not blam­ing any­one. It’s about mov­ing for­ward,” she says. “Let’s take my case and build on this, learn from this. And if we need to put things in place, let’s put them in place to make sure it doesn’t hap­pen again, and if it does, that the right steps are taken.”

In her own case, as is typ­i­cal of fam­ily vi­o­lence, she said those around her had been re­luc­tant to get in­volved with an is­sue that was “hap­pen­ing be­hind closed doors”. “I know it’s dif­fi­cult to get in­volved in a fam­ily sit­u­a­tion,” she says. Nonethe­less, Do­kic be­lieves there were peo­ple who could have, and should have, got in­volved.

“I don’t think ev­ery­body knew, but I know some peo­ple knew. I don’t have to name peo­ple, be­cause they know who they are. I would cer­tainly be ask­ing my­self ques­tions if I was in a lot of peo­ple’s shoes.”

Things spi­ralled for Do­kic af­ter she man­aged to es­cape her fa­ther by sign­ing over all her earn­ings to him. “Peo­ple think once you leave an abu­sive sit­u­a­tion you’re fine, but no, it’s just as bad. I bat­tled, af­ter that, with re­ally bad de­pres­sion and I al­most com­mit­ted sui­cide. I’d lost a lot of self-be­lief and self-con­fi­dence.

“I know the book is called Un­break­able, but in the end, he al­most broke me. He re­ally did. I was bro­ken. All I wanted and needed was a kind word from some­one. I just wanted some­one to come talk to me, ask me if I needed any­thing. [But] peo­ple weren’t there.”

Part of the dif­fi­culty with Do­kic’s story is that her fa­ther in­sisted on her switch­ing al­le­giances to Ser­bia in 2000, just af­ter she had lost a bronze medal match to Mon­ica Se­les in the Syd­ney Olympics, where she was an Aus­tralian am­bas­sador. This move would iso­late her from the coun­try she had come to call home, and the few sup­port­ers she had, in­clud­ing Paul McNamee, who she de­scribed as “ex­cep­tional”.

It was in the same year that Do­kic en­dured one of her most painful mo­ments – be­ing jeered on court at the Aus­tralian Open. De­spite de­scrib­ing it in her book as “the worst mo­ment not only of my ca­reer but my life”, Do­kic does not blame the Aus­tralian pub­lic. “It was jus­ti­fied [the boo­ing]. From the fans’ point of view, leav­ing the coun­try and play­ing for some­one else – it’s a be­trayal.

“That was very hard for me – but it was my fa­ther who put me through that. That’s why I saw that de­ci­sion as so out­ra­geous, and I was so sad and an­gry that my fa­ther made me do that. If there’s one thing in my life and ca­reer I could change – this would be the one. I al­ways felt Aus­tralian, I would never have left.”

For Do­kic, how­ever, her fa­ther’s abrupt de­ci­sion to up­root her fam­ily yet again, brought back painful mem­o­ries of ex­pe­ri­enc­ing racism and dis­crim­i­na­tion in Aus­tralia when ar­riv­ing as a refugee in 1994. Her fam­ily had left for Syd­ney af­ter es­cap­ing war-torn Yu­goslavia, where Do­kic’s grand­fa­ther was killed.

“I’m not say­ing Aus­tralia is racist, or ev­ery­body is racist, but when I came to Aus­tralia, I was told by ju­nior play­ers to ‘go back to where I came from’. Par­ents tried to ar­gue that I wasn’t el­i­gi­ble for schol­ar­ships or fund­ing, when I was No1 in ev­ery sin­gle age group.”

Rep­re­sent­ing Ser­bia, Do­kic was seen as a “traitor” in the eyes of her com­pa­tri­ots – most no­tably her ten­nis peers – and again ex­pe­ri­enced iso­la­tion and ex­clu­sion, even when she re­turned to Aus­tralia of her own vo­li­tion in 2005.

“I heard some­one on the ten­nis scene in Aus­tralia say they wouldn’t have al­lowed me to come back to Aus­tralia let alone play the Aus­tralian Open or get a wild­card, and I knew some peo­ple felt that way.

“I would’ve loved to have talked to some peo­ple, to get them to un­der­stand, even be friends. But they, to be com­pletely hon­est, didn’t give me a chance. I guess that was eas­ier for them – to judge the sit­u­a­tion – but in the end they had no idea. All those things led to me feel­ing like I wasn’t ac­cepted by cer­tain peo­ple, and ul­ti­mately my de­pres­sion and al­most com­mit­ting sui­cide.”

At this point, Do­kic re­it­er­ates that she does not want peo­ple to feel sorry for her, or for her story to be seen as an ex­er­cise in blame. “I don’t want pity. I’ve over­come this. I’m not com­plain­ing, this is about help­ing peo­ple,” she says.

She is not sure if Damir has read the book, as they no longer talk. “I’m sure he wouldn’t be too happy about it,” she says. “But at the end of the day, I’m the one who should be heard. If all he has to face is the fact that peo­ple know what he’s done – well, it was a lot worse for me. This story isn’t even about him, it’s much big­ger pic­ture than that.”

The story is, of course, one of fam­ily vi­o­lence, an area Do­kic hopes to move into with mo­ti­va­tional speak­ing. But that may have to com­pete with a re­newed ap­petite for tak­ing to the courts.

“I’ve bat­tled with phys­i­cal is­sues, health is­sues, in­clud­ing my thy­roid. I couldn’t get on court for a few years af­ter re­tire­ment, but I’ve started hit­ting again and it has started be­ing so en­joy­able. I’m not sure I’ve ever en­joyed ten­nis as much as I en­joy go­ing on the courts now.”

She’s not cer­tain why that is, but ad­mits that her best re­sults – at a time when she reached No4 in the world – were achieved in fear.

“I cer­tainly played with fear. And a lot of pres­sure – in a way it made me bet­ter, but it def­i­nitely meant I didn’t ful­fil my po­ten­tial. Could I have won a grand slam, been No1? Maybe. But I could have had a much longer ca­reer, and been a con­sis­tent top-10, top-five player.

“There might be a few years left. It would take a lot of work, but there’s cer­tainly a will from me. I’ll think long and hard about it be­cause I didn’t fin­ish on my own terms.”

Un­til then, Do­kic will com­men­tate the Aus­tralian Open and sum­mer of ten­nis – a game she says she con­tin­ues to love, de­spite what she has en­dured.

“Cer­tainly there were days when I couldn’t en­joy it be­cause of what went on off the court, but I love ten­nis. I loved it from the first day I started play­ing and I think I al­ways will.”

Un­break­able by Je­lena Do­kic with Jes­sica Hal­lo­ran is pub­lished by Pen­guin Ran­dom House Aus­tralia, RRP $34.99

The sup­port has been in­cred­i­ble, and I feel good [hav­ing the story out there]

Je­lena Do­kic hopes her book will in­cite change for oth­ers who are ex­pe­ri­enc­ing fam­ily vi­o­lence. Pho­to­graph: Matthew Stock­man/Getty Images

Je­lena Do­kic at Wim­ble­don in 2009. Pho­to­graph: Tom Jenk­ins for the Guardian

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