If 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.
The 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.)