Unbreakable: Conversation with Jelena Dokic

Louise Maher and Jelena DokicIf you are a fan of professional tennis you will probably have heard of Jelena Dokic who hit the world stage during the 1999 Wimbledon Championships. She was just 16 years old, and, as Wikipedia writes, “achieved one of the biggest upsets in tennis history, beating Martina Hingis 6-2, 6-0. This remains the only time the women’s world No. 1 has ever lost to a qualifier at Wimbledon.” If you were an Australian tennis fan this was very exciting – or should have been. Unfortunately for Croatian-born Dokic, her tennis trajectory was one dogged by controversy, much of it caused by her abusive, controlling father. Her story, which she has documented in her book, Unbreakable, co-written with Jessica Halloran, is a tough one.

An author talk with a sportsperson about a co-written memoir would not necessarily be high priority for me, but if there’s one sport I love, it’s tennis, and Dokic’s story has implications that extend beyond tennis. So, with no competing events on that night, Mr Gums and I decided to go. It was in the form of a conversation between Dokic and local ABC presenter Louise Maher.

Jelena Dokic, UnbreakableThe conversation started with some introductory information. This included that Dokic had reached 4th in the world by the age of 19 years old, and that, due to the Yugoslav wars, she and her family had left Croatia for Serbia when she was 8 years old, and then emigrated to Australia in 1994 when she was 11. By 11 years of age, then, she’d already experienced far more trauma than most her age had experienced. When you add to this the fact that her father – who saw tennis as the opportunity for a good life – started abusing her from the minute he introduced her to tennis when she was 6 years old, you get the picture of a sad and lonely young person. It’s no wonder that the Australian tennis community – fans and players – found it hard to warm to her. No wonder, I say, but that’s no excuse. The failure of duty of care for this young person is clear – and her book has, apparently, got the international tennis world talking.

Now, I’m not going to give a blow-by-blow summary of the conversation, partly because it covered a lot of ground that is covered in the book, as well as in the various stories about her life that you can read on the Internet. Instead, I want to focus on the lessons and messages from the book (well, from what she told us about the book, as I haven’t read it.)

She had a few reasons for writing the book. One was to help others: she hopes by sharing her story, she will increase awareness of abusive parent-child relationships, particularly in sport, and thus help ensure it doesn’t happen to others.

Another reason is a more distressing one, in a way, and that is to enable Australians get to know her better – because the truth is that, due to her father’s abusive control of her, spectators never really got to know her, and as a result, they sometimes gave her a hard time. Some of this was racially or ethnically based – indeed she was told “to go back where you came from” – by several within and without the tennis world. The worst time for her, though, was when her father suddenly withdrew her from Australia, when she was 17 years old, to play for Yugoslavia. Her first major tournament after this was, unfortunately, the Australian Open – and the crowds jeered her. That’s hard enough for any-one, but for a 17-year-old girl who had no say in the matter, who was being abused by her father, it increased her sense of loneliness, of isolation, of having no support.

This issue of having no support is something she repeated several times in the conversation. When Louise Maher pressed her about her mother’s role, Dokic answered that her mother didn’t intervene. She wanted the family to stay together, and trusted her husband knew what he was doing!

Dokic provided various examples of her father’s abusive behaviour towards her, and of her desperation for a little praise that apparently never came (even after significant wins). She finally managed to “escape” home when she was 19-years-old – but life was tough, as she left with nothing, no money, no credit card. This is when, she said, she particularly needed support, but there was none.

I won’t continue, but there are some too-familiar lessons here, particularly the one that I’ll call the “turning a blind-eye syndrome”! There were people, Dokic said, who knew things weren’t right, but they were reluctant to get involved. And the media focussed on her father, enjoying the sensationalism of reporting on his behaviour – “Media thought he was funny, but he wasn’t”, she said. The didn’t pay any attention to what was happening to Dokic, or to the impact of their reporting on her. (I wished, that night, that I’d thought of my question about what she’d have liked the Media to do, before, not after, question-time finished!)

Dokic loved playing tennis, she said, but her father ruined her career. Tennis aficionados will, I’m sure, agree with her. She did look like achieving a come-back in her mid-to-late twenties but injury, illness, and surely the impact of all she’d suffered, meant there wasn’t the fairy-tale ending. Today she does sports commentating, motivational speaking and coaching.

There was a lot lot more – but if you’re interested, read the book!

Meanwhile, there are lessons to be learnt by the media, by spectators, and by tennis organisations about duty of care, particularly when reporting on, watching, or managing young players. What happened to Dokic could not have been completely avoided – its having started at home when she was a beginning 6-year old player – but it should not have gone on for as long as it did if people who knew, or even suspected, things were amiss, did something about it. I do hope this book has the effect that Dokic would like.

(Oh, and sitting next to me at this event was one of the ACT Litbloggers, the lovely Angharad of Tinted Edges. I look forward to seeing her post on it.)


22 thoughts on “Unbreakable: Conversation with Jelena Dokic

  1. Yay, I’m here via a message in inbox that there is a new post at Whispering Gums!
    (I bet we’re not the only ones who had the problem… I’d suggest WP subscribers visit https://wordpress.com/me/notifications/subscriptions and untick the box at the bottom, but they probably haven’t been notified of this new post so they’re not reading this anyway!)

    Tennis, football, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that young people can be victims of Australia’s sport obsession. I won’t be surprised if there’s a royal commission into it one day…

    • Haha, Lisa, you’re right, they probably haven’t!

      And haha, too, re Royal Commission. I heard Julie Bishop on the radio today defending Turnbull’s leadership and interest in the needs of Australians because, “look, he’s having a Royal Commission into banks”! Do they think we are stupid or something?

    • Thanks Michelle – yes it was, and I’ll be kicking myself for a while yet. I was so busy taking notes and listening, that suddenly Q&A was over. While I don’t want to completely bag the media, I think they have a lot to answer for in their search for stories and sensation, and their refusal to all any nuance to their reporting, any sense of understanding these are human beings they are dealing with. Thanks for the link. I’d read a few, but it was one like this that I really wanted to find.

  2. I’d always assumed the comments about Dokic’s father were motivated by racism – Australian sports commentators have never been good at dealing with difference. But I was wrong and I’m sorry.

    • Oh I think there was a racist element there as well Bill – and it probably enabled people to turn a blind eye to the real facts. It’s very hard for audiences to know what’s going on if the media is reporting in a black-and-white way.

  3. Yes, this happens so much in sports, dance, music, entertainment. All the people coming forward about sexual abuse. Too much “not wanting to rock the boat” syndrome. Turning a blind eye. The media should quit being so sensationalist and do some proper investgation in to some of their journalism. Very sad.

    • Absolutely, the media really does need to start analysing a bit more. I know that reporters on the ground are being pressured my their bosses to produce content quickly, and that many of them what to do the investigation, but this has got to change. Journalism should not be about reporting the obvious but digging beneath the surface to understand the whys and wherefores.

        • I rather like a rainy weekend too Pam, particularly if it’s a commitment-free weekend. Our drop though is, fortunately, from around 29 to 20. I’m having my regular Saturday breakfast in bed, with my iPad & book, and watching the rain fall outside our bay window. Oh the peace!

  4. Sue, thrilled you reported on the discussion between Jelena Dokic and Louise Maher as I had really wanted to attend this too. Also a committed tennis fan, I found watching her matches uncomfortable to sit through as I think I instinctably knew that her father was causing chaos behind the scene. I sit here now wishing I had put some serious thought into how she could have been assisted and supported, and possibly acted on it as a member of the general tennis loving public rather than “doing nothing”.
    I am sure the Tennis Australia officials and perhaps even the media would handle her differently with hindsight.

    • Thanks Cultusgirl. I remember the same feelings of discomfort at the time, and feeling the same now about what we as spectators, particularly television spectators as I am (having only been to the Australian Open once) could have done. We should all think more seriously about how we respond to young tennis players – whatever their situation is – firstly because they are young and secondly because we don’t know the full story. Too often the media and spectators jump to conclusions. We need to media to be more thoughtful and analytical because they are the ones on the spot, and with access to areas we cannot go.

    • Haha, so did I Angharad. Maybe you can share the info I didn’t!! (Just joking, write what you like.) I was sorry I couldn’t go to Leunig, so I look forward to reading that one of yours too.

  5. I wonder if one day we are going to find out there is another story to Nick Kyrgios and Bernard Tomic. I always felt uncomfortable about the way Jelena Dokic was being treated by the media and I feel the same way about Kyrgios although Tomic does annoy me, but perhaps he has a similar story

    • Between you, me and the gate-post I believe there may be more to it with Tomic. Not necessarily the sort of abuse Dokic got, but my sense is that these young players may very well be being “encouraged” with the best intentions even, beyond their readiness for such commitment, and it’s a shame. One of the issues, besides the more serious ones, is that those players with “charisma” attract audience support – just look at the gorgeous, lively Daria – while others who may not be so comfortable in the limelight can be given a hard time. There may be other things going on or they may just be quieter, shyer, personalities. We spectators need to be attuned to this I think. And the media should too.

      • agree, especially your last sentence. The media does have its favourites, and I guess they have their reasons for that too. They also need to make a living. I would love to have seen Dokic in person. I did see her on the television and my heart went out to her. I hope she has found peace. I will buy her book for myself for Christmas.

        • I think she has. Seems to be in a supportive stable relationship and has been able to reconnect with her brother. She said she couldn’t have written the book 5 years ago.

  6. Hi Sue, I don’t know how Jelena survived to write this harrowing story of physical and mental abuse by her father, Damir Dokic. Her mother was powerless (also abused by Damir), to stop the cruel treatment. Jelena was a lonely and frightened child. Some people did try to assist Jelena, At one time she was a taken to a police station because of concern, but because of her fear she denied her father abused her. I hear of young children with parents who push them to exceed in sport, but I doubt if any are as bad as Jelena’s volatile father. I can only hope that she achieves her aim of a happy family life with her partner, Tin

    • Thanks Meg for coming back to report on your reading of this book. Yes, she mentioned that police station story in interviews (including our conversation) and how she lied about her father abusing her as you say. I suspect that happens a lot – and you can understand why, can’t you? I don’t know what we can do about that.

      And yes, re Tin. It sounds like they’ve been together for a while, so finger crossed, eh? I’m watching tennis now and thinking about some of the young women (in particular), and hoping they are ok.

  7. Pingback: Unbreakable by Jelena Dokic – Book Reviewers International

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