I wanted to com­mit sui­cide but I fought for a much bet­ter life

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Sport - By Oliver Brown chief sports fea­ture writer

Twenty years on from her best run at Wimbledon, the Aus­tralian re­veals how she has found in­ner peace

Twenty years on from her best run at Wimbledon, Aus­tralian re­veals she had to cut fam­ily ties to find in­ner peace

It is 20 years since Je­lena Do­kic, fresh from her one and only Wimbledon semi-fi­nal, dared to savour how far she had come. She had just lost heav­ily, 6-4, 6-2 to de­fend­ing cham­pion Lind­say Daven­port, but un­til that day she had not even dropped a set, el­e­vat­ing her stature on a stage where she had swat­ted aside world No1 Martina Hingis the pre­vi­ous sum­mer. But when she glanced up to the play­ers’ box for her fa­ther, Damir, she saw only his squat frame mak­ing a bolt from Cen­tre Court.

Af­ter sev­eral at­tempts, she tracked him down by tele­phone, a cue for him to un­leash a tirade of drunken vitriol. “You are pa­thetic,” he yelled at her. “You are a hope­less cow.”

He re­fused even to let her re­turn to their ho­tel. On what should have been one of the most joy­ous oc­ca­sions of her life, Do­kic ended the day alone, sob­bing on a sofa in the play­ers’ lounge, with a cleaner sheep­ishly telling her that she could not stay the night. Only a kindly in­ter­ven­tion by ref­eree Alan Mills, who found a room for her in Wimbledon Vil­lage, en­sured that she had a bed.

“I’ve been through a lot,” says Do­kic from her Mel­bourne home. “But there weren’t many op­tions. Ei­ther I was go­ing to get through it or give up. I al­most com­mit­ted sui­cide at one stage. No mat­ter how bad things be­came, with the abuse from my fa­ther, the vi­o­lence and the bul­ly­ing, I was al­ways as I was in ten­nis, want­ing to find a way out. I be­lieved that there was some­thing bet­ter, that I could find a so­lu­tion. That’s what I was fight­ing for – a bet­ter life one day.”

Be­lat­edly, she has dis­cov­ered con­tent­ment, carv­ing out a niche as a com­men­ta­tor and mo­ti­va­tional speaker in Aus­tralia, to where she had fled from the war-torn for­mer Yu­goslavia at the age of 11. Such is the trauma that has dis­fig­ured her life, start­ing with see­ing a dead body float­ing down the River Drava, she de­rives com­fort th­ese days from the most in­no­cent plea­sures. “I trea­sure just hav­ing a cof­fee by a beach,” she says. “As you get older, you want to get rid of the things that don’t make you happy.”

Two decades on, it is jar­ring to con­sider how cru­elly Do­kic’s tor­ment was dis­torted at the time. At Wimbledon, the pa­ter­nal out­bursts were so fre­quent, so ex­treme, that Damir be­came al­most a comic car­i­ca­ture for the me­dia. Af­ter one of Je­lena’s early-round vic­to­ries in 2000, he smashed a reporter’s phone and screamed: “The Queen is for democ­racy, ev­ery­thing else in this coun­try is fas­cist.” Few of her matches were com­plete with­out an erup­tion from the brutish, bearded fig­ure in the stands, feeding the crude archetype of a night­mare ten­nis par­ent. “Dad from hell,” as one head­line put it.

Ex­cept Do­kic Snr was never just some ec­cen­tric ine­bri­ate. He was a vi­cious, ma­nip­u­la­tive abuser, the ex­tent of whose de­prav­ity only Je­lena, ter­rorised by him from the mo­ment she could swing a rac­quet, could un­der­stand. At the time, she had to de­fend him in pub­lic or face terrible con­se­quences. Now, she is an­gry at how cyn­i­cally he was al­lowed to con­trol the nar­ra­tive. “It was cov­ered ex­tremely badly,” she says. “He was made into a joke, a punch­line. That was com­pletely wrong. No one stopped to think for a sec­ond, ‘Is she safe go­ing home with this per­son?’ I was just a teenager.”

There is a photograph, taken in Au­gust 2000, of Do­kic train­ing for a tour­na­ment in Con­necti­cut. It looks like a stan­dard­is­sue ac­tion shot, un­til one looks closer and sees the bruises cov­er­ing her legs. A pas­sage from her au­to­bi­og­ra­phy,

Un­break­able, about her fa­ther’s ret­ri­bu­tion for an ear­lier de­feat in Montreal, il­lu­mi­nates why. “He clenches his hand into a fist and strikes me,” she writes. “For the next round of tor­ture, he makes me stand still, then kicks me in the shin with the sharp-toed dress shoes he is wear­ing. When I cry out in pain, he gets me back in po­si­tion, lines up and boots me again.”

Her mem­oir, pro­duced with jour­nal­ist Jessica Hal­lo­ran, is full of sim­i­larly har­row­ing pas­sages. It re­quired much ne­go­ti­a­tion to en­sure that the stark­est de­tails were pub­lished. “We spent hours go­ing through it,” Do­kic says. “It was emo­tional. I read the book 10 times be­fore it went to print. I wanted ev­ery­thing in there. But it got to the stage where I couldn’t read it any more, it was so drain­ing.”

How could the suf­fer­ing of Do­kic, a star in an in­ter­na­tional sport, go on for so long with­out any­one sus­pect­ing? Part of the prob­lem was how of­ten she was bul­lied into cov­er­ing up for Damir. Ren­nae Stubbs, her Aus­tralian dou­bles part­ner, saw the pur­ple welts over her legs from her beat­ing in Canada and asked how she was. But she sim­ply shrugged, “I’m fine,” know­ing that any other an­swer would have brought a sav­age reprisal.

“It’s hard for peo­ple to know what’s go­ing on pri­vately,” she ac­knowl­edges. “What’s im­por­tant in ten­nis is what we do from here. If no one learns from my ex­pe­ri­ences, then we’re in trou­ble.” Do­kic sought, on sev­eral oc­ca­sions, to es­cape Damir’s abuse, but he would hound her. Fleet­ingly, she found sanc­tu­ary with her first se­ri­ous boyfriend, En­rique Ber­toldi, the Brazil­ian For­mula One driver, but even here, the shadow of Damir would re-emerge. At one stage, he can­celled her credit card in a fit of pos­ses­sive­ness, leav­ing her with­out a penny, given that she had been co­erced into sign­ing her ten­nis earn­ings over to him. “Money was what was most im­por­tant to him,” she says.

By 2005, de­spair had en­gulfed Do­kic. Her form had col­lapsed, while her phone flooded with terrible mes­sages from Damir, ac­cus­ing her in the wildest terms of aban­don­ing the fam­ily. So one day, just five years af­ter she had been the toast of Wimbledon, she stepped out on the bal­cony of her 30th-floor apart­ment in Monte Carlo, in­tend­ing to end her life. She pic­tured the fall, imag­ined the

‘He was made into a joke, a punch­line. No one stopped to think, ‘Is she safe go­ing home with this per­son?’ I was just a teenager’

‘I don’t have the time or the en­ergy any longer for peo­ple who don’t have any sense of fam­ily or love. It’s bet­ter this way’

peace it might some­how bring her, only to re­treat at the last mo­ment in some sub­con­scious re­al­i­sa­tion that it was the worst of all out­comes. “I had fallen into a re­ally bad de­pres­sion,” says Do­kic, who iden­ti­fies the toxic in­flu­ence of her fa­ther as a key con­trib­u­tor to her break­down.

And yet even amid such bleak­ness, and de­spite Damir’s sadis­tic na­ture, she would travel back to Ser­bia, des­per­ate to sal­vage some sem­blance of a re­la­tion­ship. “I found it very hard to be­lieve that some­body could be the way that he was. He had no re­morse, he thought that he did ev­ery­thing right and that he would do it again. But it’s a tough one. Who else are you go­ing to have a re­la­tion­ship with, if not with your fam­ily? You try to fix it, to find com­mon ground.”

Do­kic ac­com­plished much in her short ca­reer, reach­ing world No4 and ad­vanc­ing to a slam quar­ter-fi­nal at Mel­bourne Park 10 years af­ter her Wimbledon break­through. But a stub­born wrist in­jury forced her re­tire­ment, and she con­tin­ues to be­lieve that she could have risen higher with­out the phys­i­cal and psy­cho­log­i­cal wounds in­flicted by her fa­ther. “I played for 10 years while bat­tling de­pres­sion and anxiety – that’s un­heard of,” she says. “The main fac­tor is the fam­ily. If I had had that sup­port, it would have made a huge dif­fer­ence. It was heart­break­ing.”

A theme re­curs in Do­kic’s life of feel­ing like an out­sider. As a child, she wanted to move to an academy in Ger­many, but her visa was de­nied. A pre­co­cious tal­ent, she made trips abroad with Aus­tralian youth teams, but sel­dom forged friend­ships. At Wimbledon, this alien­ation was re­in­forced, es­pe­cially when a BBC com­men­ta­tor pompously likened the Put­ney ho­tel where she was stay­ing to a bor­dello. “It was down­right dis­gust­ing for him to say that,” she ar­gues. “It was done with­out any re­gard for my well-be­ing.”

In the most pow­er­ful tonic for her men­tal state, she no longer has any con­tact with Damir. Since the end of her play­ing days, his cyn­i­cism, cou­pled with the in­stinct that he was only ever us­ing her for his fi­nan­cial ends, per­suaded her to sever ties for good. “He’s never go­ing to change,” she sighs. “I don’t have the time or the en­ergy any longer for peo­ple who don’t have any sense of fam­ily or love. It’s bet­ter this way. I re­sent him for what he put me through, for the em­bar­rass­ment he caused me.”

There is also the vexed ques­tion of why her mother, Ljil­jana, her­self a vic­tim of Damir’s fu­ries, did not do more to pro­tect her. “It’s hard for me to un­der­stand that. She grew up with­out par­ents. But how much abuse are you go­ing to ac­cept?”

At 37, Do­kic ap­pears fi­nally to have van­quished her de­mons, rel­ish­ing the sta­bil­ity she en­joys with her ex-coach and long-term part­ner, Tin Bi­kic. There is ten­ta­tive talk, af­ter all the fam­ily hor­rors which she suf­fered, of hav­ing chil­dren of her own.

She is adamant that her story, where her fa­ther’s lies cov­ered up a litany of bru­tal­ity that al­most de­stroyed her, can­not be tol­er­ated again in ten­nis. “I hope that we don’t ever have an­other case like mine,” she says. “But if we do, I trust that it will be cov­ered in a dif­fer­ent way.”

Tor­mented: Je­lena Do­kic suf­fered at the hands of her bul­ly­ing fa­ther Damir, pic­tured talk­ing to a po­lice­man at Wimbledon in 2000 (top right), but still man­aged to climb to No 4 in the world rank­ings

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