Tennis star talks about the relief of get her tale out there, the annoyance of covering for an abusive parent and the exhilaration of playing for pleasure , not fear

Thanks to her father Damir, Jelena Dokic has had a notoriously strained relationship with the media. From coverage of him threatening US Open personnel over the price of fish, to drunkenly smashing a reporter’s telephone 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 resulted, research reports were information sources of deep dishonor 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 conference.

” When he made all those public rantings, I had to cover for him and say what he wanted ,” she tells the Guardian.” I know the media believed 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 parent- 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 run? What else does he do ?”

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

And so, in a spin of fate, Dokic- now aged 34- has approached the media with open arms, greeting rather than shying away from the spotlight again. She tells the public reaction to her volume- which has constructed headlines worldwide- has been something of a shock, devoted 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 supporting has been incredible, and I feel good[ having the narrative out there ].”

She is aware her tale has inspired, and will continue to inspire, 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 tells.” Let’s take my case and build on this, learn from this. And if we need to set things in place, let’s set 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 told those around her had been reluctant to get involved with an issue that was ” happening behind closed- door “.” I know it’s difficult to to participate in a family situation ,” she tells. Nonetheless, Dokic believes there were people who could have, and should have, got involved.

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

” 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 nearly killed himself. 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 violate. All I wanted and needed was a kind word from person. I just wanted someone to come talk to me, ask me if I required 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 advocates she had, including Paul McNamee, who she described as “exceptional”.

Jelena Jelena Dokic with her father Damir, in January 2000 in Melbourne. Photo: Melbourne Herald Sun/ EPA

It was in the same year that Dokic endured one of her most painful moments- being jeered on tribunal at the Australian Open. Despite describing him 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 set me through that. That’s why I ensure that decision as so outrageous, and I was so sad and angry that my father stimulated 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 the status of refugees 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 hear person 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 style.

” 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 virtually committing suicide .”

Jelena An exhausted Jelena Dokic at the US Open in 2000. Photograph: Ed Betz/ AP

At this phase, Dokic reiterates that she does not want people to feel sorry for her, or for her tale 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 working 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 tale isn’t even about him, it’s much bigger picture than that .”

The story is, of course, one of family violence, an region 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 tribunal 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.

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