“I knew that it was always going to be important to get the message out, because I knew everything that was going on that people didn’t know about,” Dokic said. “I’ve been thinking about it for a while and I just wasn’t ready until now.”
Dokic first made a splash on the tennis scene at Wimbledon in 1999, stunning top-seeded Martina Hingis, 6-2, 6-0, in the first round on her way to the quarterfinals. A year later, she reached the semifinals at Wimbledon and at the Sydney Olympics.
Though her rise was swift, her father’s dark, looming interference consistently eclipsed her bright career. His public outbursts at Grand Slam tournaments were well documented, from smashing a reporter’s phone at Wimbledon to throwing salmon at the players’ restaurant at the United States Open because he considered it overpriced. But Dokic was reluctant to acknowledge the abuse during her career.
“I wish I had done it while I was playing, but it just wasn’t the time,” Dokic said. “I wasn’t ready to talk about it.”
The cruelty began in Yugoslavia, where Dokic spotted bodies floating in a river. She eventually fled Croatia for Australia with her ethnically Serbian family when she was a small child. She enjoyed picking up tennis, but pressure from her father to excel in the sport, she says, quickly became violent.
“His huge right hand strikes my 6-year-old cheeks — once, twice, three times rapidly,” she writes of what she described as her first beating. “The shock of the smack is more severe than the pain of his hand against my cheek. He has never done this.”
By the time she was 14, the police were called to the family’s hotel room amid a beating at a junior tournament, and her father was taken into custody. Dokic denied the abuse.
“I won’t budge,” she writes. “I don’t even cry now. I am emotionless. I treat the Victoria Police like an opponent on the tennis court; I don’t give them a thing. I am cold. They can’t break me.”
Though her tennis career took off here, Dokic often felt ostracized and isolated in Australia, which she believes was caused by jealousy and xenophobia, as well as her father’s behavior.
“You wouldn’t have to speak English to know that we, the Dokics, are not welcome,” she writes. “There’s palpable annoyance that a Serbian refugee has been awarded a state tennis scholarship. Even though I have won everything, beaten everyone, am No. 1 in Australia in multiple age groups, it’s evident that some parents don’t think a foreign kid with an erratic father who rattles the fence to distract their children from serving correctly should be getting help from the Institute.”
Dokic now contends that members of the news media who glibly covered her father’s outbursts should have shown more concern for the teenage girl in his grips and understood that his private behavior was likely worse.
Many in Australian tennis suspected that Damir Dokic was abusive, and some even said they saw bruises on Jelena’s body.
Now that she is opening up about the abuse she once denied, the tennis community is responding. In a statement after her book’s release, Tennis Australia praised Dokic’s courage and defended its actions during her playing days.
“There were many in tennis at the time who were concerned for Jelena’s welfare, and many who tried to assist with what was a difficult family situation,” the federation said in the statement. “Some officials even went as far as lodging police complaints, which, without cooperation from those directly involved, unfortunately could not be fully investigated.”
Dokic now writes that persistent beatings occurred as she traveled the tour with her father — including one long session in Montreal in 1999 that left her nearly unconscious. She finally broke free from him in 2002, but she also lost his direction and discipline, which had brought her to the top of the sport.
“As much as he did negative things, he had certain things he did provide for me,” she said in the interview. “My father definitely knew, tennis-wise, what he was doing. Everything was organized, and the decisions that he was making tennis-wise were the correct ones.”
Dokic’s father had forced her to switch from representing Australia to representing her native Yugoslavia in 2001, which alienated many in Australia and deprived her of support once she left him. When she faced top-seeded Lindsay Davenport in the first round of the Australian Open after switching, the crowd expressed its displeasure.
“Even with all the physical abuse and everything else, that’s actually the one thing that I could take back, if I could,” Dokic said. “I never wanted to do that, and I never agreed with it. It was a disgraceful decision and something that I really hated that he did and made me do.”
Eventually Dokic was again representing Australia after navigating the depths of a depression that had her considering suicide. She made a fairy-tale run to the quarterfinals of the Australian Open in 2009 but was unable to sustain the surge.
That year, Dokic first acknowledged some abuse at her father’s hands, in an interview with the Australian magazine Sport & Style. Damir Dokic did not deny the accusations but played them down, telling the Serbian newspaper Blic that “there was no child that was not beaten by parents — the same with Jelena.”
Damir Dokic then threatened to blow up Claire Bergin, the Australian ambassador to Serbia, and was arrested and jailed for 15 months after the police found a cache of weapons in his home. It is the only jail sentence he has served. He could not be reached for comment for this article.
Dokic, 34, was wrapping up her tennis career by 2013.
“I love tennis. I always have, and I always will,” she said. “ Even though I’ve had a lot of bad moments ultimately because of tennis, I would still definitely recommend the sport.”
Though the issue hasn’t received as much attention in recent years, tour contemporaries of Dokic’s such as Mirjana Lucic-Baroni and Mary Pierce also said they had dealt with abusive fathers, and such abuse was seen as endemic in women’s tennis at the turn of the millennium.
Dokic said she hadn’t spoken to other players who had suffered similarly but hoped her book would help.
“My book can change a lot of things,” she said. “The conversation has now started on these things, what can be done. That’s a positive thing.”
In an interview at the Brisbane International this month, Lucic-Baroni said that the “Unbreakable” excerpts she had read rang all too true.
“My heart broke for her,” she said, adding that she couldn’t finish the book. “It’s tough because I’ve lived it. I know every feeling that she felt, all too well, unfortunately.”
Lucic-Baroni, who had her own fairy-tale run at the Australian Open by reaching the semifinals last year, said she had felt she and Dokic shared an unspoken bond.
“We are members of this unfortunate club, so to speak,” she said. “We’ve never discussed it, but I knew about her and she knew about me. It’s a really tough cycle, and it’s not something that you’re going to talk to somebody about.”
The Women’s Tennis Association, not blamed by Dokic but often scrutinized as these patterns of abuse in the sport emerged, offered her a note of support upon the book’s publication.
“The WTA is steadfast in its commitment to provide a respectful, healthy and safe environment for all WTA players and worked closely with Jelena throughout her career on the WTA Tour,” the organization said in a statement. “We’re glad that she has finally been able to break her silence.”