Jelena Do­kic breaks si­lence

The Sunday Times - - FRONT PAGE -

THERE was the time when Jelena Do­kic was forced to sleep in the play­ers’ 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 semi­fi­nal against Lind­say Daven­port.

A cleaner found her asleep curled up in a small ball on a couch.

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 says. “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 then world No.1 Martina Hingis in 1999. She went on to make the semi­fi­nals 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 Croa­t­ian-born Jelena, whose fam­ily fled her war-torn home­land and mi­grated 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 The Sun­day Times, while re­flect­ing on her fa­ther’s be­hav­iour.

“I was do­ing well, re­sults-wise and money-wise. 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 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 says. “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 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 in school and within the ten­nis com­mu­nity in Aus­tralia.

She says the book has “a lot about be­ing a refugee, be­ing bul­lied 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 One driver En­rique Ber­noldi, to live with him in Monaco.

At the time, her younger brother Savo was just 11 years old and she says it broke her heart to leave him.

It was in the en­su­ing years, when Jelena was fi­nally away from her fa­ther’s abuse, that she says 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 years (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,” she says.

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 whom 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 hit the scales at 120kg, a de­vel­op­ment ow­ing partly to a thy­roid is­sue. Tak­ing the weight off has been an ex­haust­ing and chal­leng­ing process, but Jelena has shed 30kg 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 says. “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. 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, or help­ing oth­ers who have sur­vived fam­ily vi­o­lence.’’

Un­break­able by Jelena Do­kic with Jes­sica Hal­lo­ran, Pen­guin, $34.99, is out to­mor­row

Full cir­cle (clock­wise from op­po­site page): Jelena Do­kic pic­tured this week; be­ing chap­er­oned by her fa­ther on the ten­nis cir­cuit; Jelena in ac­tion in 2009; with her long-term part­ner Tin Bi­kic; and with Mark Philip­pous­sis af­ter win­ning the 1998 Hop­man...

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