The stories of abuse being told by former tennis champ Jelena Dokic have left Australians horrified. In her new autobiography Unbreakable, Dokic alleges that her father and coach, Damir, once beat her to the point of unconsciousness, and would whip her with a leather belt because of “a mediocre training session, a loss, a bad mood”.
This isn’t the first time Dokic has accused her father of physical abuse. She spoke out in 2009, saying she had to flee her family to escape the violence. That same year, her father was sentenced to 15 months’ jail for threatening the Australian ambassador to Serbia and possessing illegal weapons.
Questions are being asked. Surely people knew the abuse was going on? Why didn’t anyone do anything about it?
“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,” Tennis Australia said in a statement on Sunday.
“Some officials even went as far as lodging police complaints, which without cooperation from those directly involved, unfortunately could not be fully investigated.”
Sadly, over the years, there have been many young tennis players whose fathers have become notorious for their abusive behaviour.
In 2014, it was reported that a Romanian junior player, Ioana Andrada Surdeanu, was left with a bleeding nose after being hit in the face by her father and coach, Lucian. She had just lost a quarter-final match at a tournament in Israel. Her father spent the night in jail and was fined.
But the 16-year-old player defended her father on Facebook.
“I deserved it,” she wrote. “It was my fault because I’ve yelled and said some words to him. I was irresponsible after all the sacrifices he made for me.”
Mirjana Lucic-Baroni, who made it to the finals of the Australian Open earlier this year, has claimed she had to flee Croatia as a teenager to escape the abuse inflicted by her father and coach, Marinko Lucic.
“There have been more beatings than anyone can imagine,” she said at the time.
Her father wrote a letter to a Croatian newspaper, defending himself.
“I never used excessive force, and if I did give her the occasional slap, it was because of her behaviour; I did what I believe was best for my child.”
In 1993, Mary Pierce’s father and coach Jim was banned from all tour matches due to his courtside behaviour.
“Dad would slap me after I lost a match, or sometimes if I had a bad practice,” the player once alleged.
She successfully filed for a restraining order against him.
“Mary is like a finely tuned sports car,” her father said. “I built the Ferrari and now I want the keys back.”
Dr Phil Jauncey is a Queensland performance psychologist who has worked extensively with juniors in a variety of sports, including tennis.
He can see why some parents behave badly when their kids aren’t doing well. It’s because it’s their own DNA out there competing.
“Their identity is into it: ‘I wasn’t very much, but if my child does well, that makes me good,’” Dr Jauncey explains to Mamamia.
Tennis, in particular, can create a perfect storm for young players being abused, particularly if the family is from a culture where the father is “the dictator”.
“In that culture, he loses face if anybody, boy or girl doesn’t follow him. But if you’re a girl, it’s like you’re expected to do that.”
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In team sports, junior players are spending time with other juniors. Not tennis.
“What happens in tennis is if you’re good enough, then quite often you’re isolated. You go overseas to elite schools. Obviously you can’t afford a big entourage. Quite often it’s the parents who go with you.”
Dr Jauncey believes it’s less likely nowadays that a junior player would be abused by a father or other relative.
“Now, any time you help fund a junior to come through, there’s scrutiny about that person’s development, their supervision and so forth. I think, also, what used to be able to happen behind closed doors, more and more people are finding out. That’s a positive.
“But what’s most positive now is that most sports now believe they have a duty of care to their athletes.”
Dr Jauncey says the vast majority of parents he works with are “caring and loving”, and do the right thing by their kids. He says he’s been working with junior cricketers recently, and so much is being done to make sure they enjoy their sport.
“The sad thing, where ‘I know that my child has a chance of making millions of dollars and my ego’s not in check’, that’s where you can get abusive dads or relatives or even abusive coaches come into it. This is where I think all the sports now have to say, ‘All right, now we need to put things in place to protect players.’”