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