Martin Rogers-USA TODAY
There are a lot of “what ifs” on Jelena Dokic’s mind, even now, 15 years removed from her peak as a tennis player.
Dokic, 34, who was once ranked No. 4 in the world, wonders what her life might look like if her father Damir, a highly-controversial and erratic figure who was a one-man tennis news cycle during the late 1990s and early 2000s, had not allegedly subjected her to years of horrific abuse.
She wonders what if she had parlayed teenage success, reaching the quarterfinals of Wimbledon at 16 and the semis a year later, into a long and lucrative stint in the upper reaches of the game.
“I think maybe I could have reached world No. 1 and won Grand Slams,” Dokic told USA TODAY Sports in a telephone interview from Australia on Tuesday. “I don’t know. But I feel for sure I could have been a consistent top-five or top-10 player.”
And what if, during intense bouts of depression a decade ago, she had followed through on her intention to jump from the balcony of a 30th floor Monte Carlo apartment?
“I had heavy depression and I almost lost my life to it,” Dokic said. “I almost committed suicide and I was lucky to survive. I was about to jump. I (still) don’t know why I didn’t do it. It was a split-second decision.”
Dokic’s tale is harrowing and is spelled out in compelling detail in Unbreakable, her newly-released autobiography, written with Australian author Jessica Halloran. While millions of fans were watching her exploits on television, and while fellow players, coaches and journalists witnessed some of her father’s irrational ways, Dokic’s reality of ongoing personal terror was taking place out of view.
The fact that Dokic is still here, is able to talk openly about her experiences, and has career opportunities in tennis commentary and motivational speaking, is a triumph in itself considering where she came from.
She was born in Croatia to Serbian parents who fled to Serbia as war in the Balkans escalated. In Serbia they lived in poverty, in a shed infested with rats.
Yet those struggles were just a prelude to how Dokic’s life evolved after her tennis talent was discovered and her father decided she was to become a champion in the mold of Monica Seles. Whatever the cost.
After the Dokics moved to Australia and Jelena began training with elite coaches, she says the physical abuse started with slaps to the face whenever her father felt practice sessions had not been productive enough.
Soon, she says, “it was all I knew.”
According to the book, Damir would get drunk at junior tournaments and rattle the fence to distract Jelena’s opponents while they served. And later, at the Sydney home they shared with her mother and brother, he would beat her with a leather belt, spit in her face and call her degrading names.
At his insistence she trained relentlessly and rose rapidly. Once she began playing pro events at 15, it didn’t take long for his antics to make headlines. At a tournament in Birmingham, England, in 1999 he insulted female fans, was escorted out by security, then lay down in the middle of traffic before being arrested.
At Wimbledon the following year, he smashed a reporter’s cell phone and refused to let Dokic return to their hotel after she lost her semifinal. She tried to sleep in the players’ lounge before the tournament referee phoned her management company to arrange an alternative.
Later that year at the U.S. Open, Damir Dokic abused staff and officials after becoming incensed by the price of food in the players’ cafeteria. He was a caricature, a ranting ball of anger spouting conspiracy theories about rigged tournament draws and a joke in tennis circles.
“It was treated like a joke but it wasn’t a joke for me,” Dokic said. “I was living through it and dealing with it every day, at a young age. It is difficult still I wonder why no one was thinking, ‘This is a young girl here’. The things he would do or say, it was just entertainment for people.”
There were rumors of the abuse and police were called on more than one occasion, but, fearing further reprisals, Jelena became practiced at defending him, and denying that she was a victim of violence.
Eventually, in 2002, she got away, and moved to Monaco with a boyfriend, Brazilian race car driver Enrique Bernoldi. It was a brief relationship, and she later met Tin Bikic, her current partner of 14 years.
During her career she accumulated more than $4.4 million in prize money, the bulk of which she says she has never seen because it was controlled by her father. At different points she attempted to reconcile with Damir Dokic, even after he was jailed for a year for threatening to blow up the Australian ambassador to Serbia with a hand grenade in 2009.
She doesn’t try any longer, and is happier for it.
“After everything, he wasn’t even able to say sorry or take any responsibility for what had happened,” she said.
When contacted by Serbian publication Novosti, Damir Dokic said he had not been following media reports and had no comment.
Dokic’s career never returned to its former heights. Apart from a remarkable run to the quarterfinals of the 2009 Australian Open, Dokic did not advance past the second round of a Grand Slam after 2003. She retired in 2013.
With her book, Dokic hopes to provide a positive message of resiliency for fellow victims of abuse. She has been surprised by the level of support, especially among men, and sharing her story has been liberating.
“I feel good right now,” Dokic said. “I wish I could have written this a few years ago. I wish I could have done it while I was still playing. It has brought me a lot of peace, at last.”