Retired tennis star Jelena Dokic on 'Unbreakable' and her road to recovery after her father's alleged abuse
The first thing former pro tennis player Jelena Dokic, 34, said when the interview began was: "Thank you so much for reading my book and for listening to my story."
Dokic, once ranked No. 4 in the world and a Wimbledon semifinalist, was thankful she had the platform to discuss the alleged physical and mental abuse by her father in a new autobiography, "Unbreakable," which will be released in the U.S. on Feb. 1. In the book, she alleges that her father, Damir, beat her so badly that she lost consciousness at one point.
In this detailed conversation with espnW, the six-time WTA Tour winner talks about what it took to open up about the alleged abuse, battling suicidal thoughts and her road to recovery.
espnW: A dialogue between fear and love is woven throughout the book -- love for the game of tennis and fear of your father. Please discuss.
Jelena Dokic: I've always loved tennis. I think that's the one big thing -- the one positive thing -- through all of this. I loved playing from literally the first moment I started playing [at age 6]. It was at times pretty hard with everything I had to go through with my father. It was hard to enjoy it, and it was hard to sometimes be on the court because I was playing out of fear. At the end of the day, I still loved tennis. I still love it today. I love to go on the court and have a hit. That love for the game and the passion has always been there and always will be.
espnW: You were constantly trying to please your father on the court in hopes of avoiding a beating off the court. But was winning enough?
JD: I was thinking about what would happen once I left the court and what [my father] would do to me. I played out of fear and pressure. Ultimately it caused me to depart my family's home when I was just 19. At times I was automatic on the court, because I was always thinking what was going to happen with my father -- if I was going to get abused in any way. And it was a constant worry 24 hours a day.
I was constantly trying to make him happy, and it was almost impossible. I think that a lot of his motivations were money, but I also didn't understand it because even when I started earning a lot of money, it still didn't make a difference.
I lost a lot of confidence and self-esteem. He made me feel worthless, like I was nothing. I battled for a long time. He made me feel guilty, like I was the problem. To this day, I still have to work on my confidence. When you live with a person like that, who keeps telling you that you are worthless for more than 20 years, you start to almost believe it and think that way.
espnW: What made you want to tell your story now?
JD: I thought about writing a book for a while, but I wasn't ready until the last year or two. I wish I could have written it earlier, actually when I was still playing, but I wasn't prepared to do it then. There was no particular timing for this book. It was just about me and being comfortable to write it. With what's been happening in Hollywood, all I can say from my point of view is that it is essential to speak up. It is important to come out. From what I can see and hear, I am the first person in tennis to write about abuse so openly in a book. Because whether you want to admit it or not, this is still happening -- in tennis, in all sports and societies.
espnW: You recall the alleged abuse in such a vivid manner. What was it like to relive and write about these incidents?
JD: It was hard. At first, the interview process with my writer, Jessica Halloran, took a couple of weeks. It involved her spending a lot of time with me and me telling her all of my stories. It was hours and hours a day. It wasn't easy, but it wasn't that difficult to talk about it. But then when we got to the editing process, the last couple of months before the book went for print were pretty difficult. I read the book 15 to 20 times in two weeks. I wanted to be involved in every single word and sentence. I wanted to make sure to tell the story the way it was from the beginning to the end. I questioned every single line because it is difficult to put life on paper.
espnW: At 11 years old, you moved from Yugoslavia to Australia. Do you think the move to Australia impacted your game and the alleged abuse?
JD: Coming to Australia was a culture shock. It was very different from where I grew up, and I had to learn English. I think it was made harder by my father because he wanted to fit in but never really did. I think he put all the pressure he was facing onto me. The transition was difficult -- at one point a few kids told me to go back to where I came from. Then there were the parents who didn't like that the [Australian tennis] federation gave me scholarships, even though I was eligible. Some of the things were difficult, but I accepted Australia, and I could have fit in better if my father had made the transition more comfortable for me.
espnW: You noted that tennis officials knew about the alleged abuse but didn't do anything about it. Tennis Australia released a statement indicating that they tried to intervene but there was no cooperation. What are your thoughts on that response?
JD: I certainly know a few people saw it, but at this stage, it is about moving forward and not blaming people. There is a lot to be learned from my case so no other player has to go through this again -- especially a young girl. There should be a support system in place. I certainly hope it is better today than it was when I was playing. I can understand it might be hard to interfere in people's private matters, but for me, it was more the support that I didn't have after I left home. People didn't even need to know the whole story. They saw what he did publicly, and just based on that for someone to depart home at 19, you'd think that officials would come and offer help.
espnW: Though you thrived in Australia, your father thought the media coverage was unfair, and he moved you back to Yugoslavia. How did it shift your play?
JD: That decision not to play for Australia anymore -- that was the worst decision. I would never have done that. Even though I had trouble with the Australian community when I was younger, with discrimination and being an outsider, I was still appreciative of what Australia had given me when I came as a refugee from Yugoslavia. Australia funded my career and made me the player I was. I never felt the way he did. I certainly felt Australian. The toughest part was that he made me do it all.
I was sacking coaches [based on his command] when I was 12. That wasn't normal. I hated that he made me do those things. I never really recovered because people looked at me through all the things he said and made me do. It was hard to distance myself from my father. Media always wanted a headline, and they thought he was funny -- but he wasn't. They saw [his often-disruptive behavior on the sidelines] at the Grand Slams. People still interacted with him and had interviews with him, even though they saw that he was aggressive and drunk. In the end, I had to deal with it all.
espnW: You also think your father hindered the growth of your tennis career. Please discuss.
JD: I was No. 4 in the world, which is not bad at all. I certainly think that I could have been a better player. But winning Grand Slams and becoming No. 1? Maybe. I would undoubtedly have been a consistent top-5-to-10 player for many years. But then again when we talk about from the perspective of depression and suicide, I am very lucky. I think at one stage it was about whether I would lead a normal life, let alone play tennis. I think tennis then took a back seat when I was dealing with these other important issues.
espnW: Soon after leaving Australia, you ran away from home, and the alleged beating ceased. Then depression set in. You noted: "I've decided it's time to end my life." How does one put these words on paper?
JD: I battled depression for a long time, and I felt like things would be better if I wasn't here. It felt like I was creating problems for everybody, that's the way I was made to feel. I thought it would be better if I weren't here. I didn't recover overnight. It took many years. I had to get therapy. It was a process that took more than 10 years.
espnW: Though the book is predominantly about your relationship with your dad, you also talk about your complicated relationship with your mother -- first about her alleged silence, then her harshness and then her breaking away from your dad. What is your relationship with your mother now?
JD: For a while, I felt like she wasn't on my side. We talk now and have a relationship; it's a work in progress. She had her reasons for [taking Dad's side and watching everything unfold] because she grew up without parents, so she wanted me and my brother to have parents.
It is difficult to understand, especially when my father went so over the line. When you constantly see how abusive he was, you wonder why she still wanted to stay with him. Certain things I certainly don't agree with and don't understand. It is hard for me not to have her support, especially when I left home. But it is what it is; those were her decisions.
espnW: Your brother, Savo, and your partner, Tin, seemed to be sources of happiness throughout the read. What were their reactions to the book?
JD: I don't talk about Tin as much as I should have. He's always been supportive throughout our 14-year relationship. He's been there for me through absolutely everything -- even when my father didn't allow me to talk to my brother, Savo, for five to six years. He saw it all. He is the kindest and nicest person ever. We've been through everything together, and he's never complained even once through it all. Those one or two relationships I have, I work hard on and will try to keep it for the rest of my life. He saw it all -- from the best to the worst. Tin was the one light at the end of the tunnel and a huge help. I am not sure how I'd be or how things would've turned out if he wasn't there.
espnW: Overall, what was your recovery process?
JD: I can talk about it now. I probably couldn't have talked about it five years ago. It took a lot of work and lot of time to get to this stage. I pretty much had to come to terms with certain things that happened. I tried very hard to change things, to have a good relationship with my father, but I realized that some things you just can't push. You can't force people to change. You almost have to come to terms with it. Look, I have some bad memories and some painful emotional scars. I wish things were different, but I lost 30 years of my life and it is time to move on. If I wanted to live any kind of normal life, let alone play tennis, I had to work hard.