“To this day, I don’t understand why the media was making fun of him. He was a headline and a joke and a punchline.
“They saw him drunk, they saw him aggressive, they saw him being actually quite scary. So… I ask myself why they were making fun of it, and didn’t think, well, there’s a 14-year-old girl, 15-year-old girl going home with this person. And this guy wasn’t funny.”
Former tennis star Jelena Dokic, now 34, has spoken extensively to the Australian media in recent months about the physical and verbal abuse she suffered at the hands of her father, Damir, during her tennis career.
Speaking to Mia Freedman for a recent episode of No Filter, Dokic recalled being whipped with a belt, and being kicked in the shins with pointed dress shoes. She describes the way her father took control of her money, locked her out of her hotel room, leaving her with nowhere to sleep the night after a Wimbledon loss, and routinely called her a “slut” and a “whore”. It all started, she says, the moment she picked up a tennis racquet.
Listen: Jelena Dokic gives a raw account of the moment her father started abusing her. Post continues after audio.
But while the abuse often took place behind closed doors, where her mother “very often thought what [her father] was doing was right,” throughout Dokic’s early tennis career, there were signs that this young woman was not okay. Signs that, for the most part, went ignored.
Throughout 1999 and 2000, Damir Dokic was involved in four public angry outbursts at tennis tournaments. At the U.S. Open in August 2000, he was banned by officials after he hurled abuse at a waiter over a small serving of salmon. In June, he was escorted out of Wimbledon after smashing a journalist’s mobile phone. The year prior, he was thrown out of the Birmingham Classic tournament for unruly behaviour and referring to officials as ‘nazis’, then was arrested for blocking traffic. In January 2000, he was involved with a scuffle with a journalist at the Australian Open, before trying to buy the incriminating footage.
It begs the question: If a man is willing to act violently and aggressively in public, what is he capable of doing in private?
Perhaps the clearest indication that the Australian public didn’t take Damir’s behaviour seriously is his appearance in a series of 2002 ads for Kia. “Some people say I’m never happy, but who is happy when they have to pay too much?” he says in one ad. “People say I shouldn’t say this… or I shouldn’t say that,” he says in another ad. “But I can’t pretend I’m someone I’m not.”
Damir was a caricature. A stereotype. The angry, overprotective Eastern European father whose behaviour was treated as almost comical insofar as it confirmed so many (factually incorrect) biases about people who seek refuge in Australia. He was vicariously living through his daughter, being unimaginably hard on her, and was arrogant in every aspect of the tennis world. He believed he always knew best.
In 2006, three years before Dokic first spoke publicly about her father's abuse, her teammate Rennae Stubbs spoke to Sydney Morning Herald about some disturbing interactions she had with Jelena and Damir.
Stubbs was Jelena's doubles partner at the Canadian Open before the Sydney 2000 Olympics, but when she arrived in Montreal, she was told by Damir that Jelena wouldn't be playing because she was injured.
"I confronted them at the hotel, because I was afraid for Jelena, and she was in tears, so I said to her dad, 'Why are you pulling her out of the doubles? Why are you leaving?'" Stubbs said.
"I said, 'I've come here to play doubles with you, Jelena, and you and I are going to play doubles tomorrow'. She was looking at me like she wanted to play and trying not to show him her face, and I understood fully that it was nothing to do with her, and I know that Jelena had to deal with something that very few of us have had to deal with, and that's an abusive father.
"She turned up the next day 10 minutes late for practice and I didn't think she was going to come, but she did come and I could see physical bruising on her, and I felt sorry for her like you can't believe.
"So I went through a lot of stuff with her. At the Olympics, I pleaded with her to stay at the village but her dad wouldn't let her. I said, 'Stay here, he can't get in here, he can't get to the courts', but she was afraid for her family as well. So I understand what she went through."
The article, however, then changed direction to focus on Jelena refusing to acknowledge being hit on the body by a ball that then went out in the doubles semi-final of the French Open, and her choice to renounce her citizenship in 2001.
Just as the stories of Damir's outbursts were diluted - made lighter by the way we parodied them - so too were allegations of abuse against Jelena diluted. She had betrayed Australia - a decision we would later find out was orchestrated by her father. Sometimes she wasn't the perfect sportsperson. Early on, she publicly supported him and said she wanted him to be there. It was a family matter. Private. It wasn't any of our business.
Listen: Mia Freedman speaks to Jelena Dokic about tennis, her father's abuse, and why the media owes her such a huge apology. Post continues after audio.
But once Jelena left home at 19, following relentless "public embarrassment" from her father, as well as his constant abuse, she says she doesn't "understand why there was not more support".
She says people didn't really check up on her. No one asked how she was. Wasn't her leaving home, choosing to no longer have her father as her coach, an indication that something was wrong?
In a piece for ABC in November, Richard Hinds writes, "As a sports writer who regularly covered the grand slam tournaments throughout Dokic's career, we all knew something was wrong with the Dokic family."
But Hinds says attempts by himself and his colleagues to raise allegations with Tennis Australia were met with the response that "without cooperation from those directly involved, [the allegations] could not be fully investigated."
Jelena's situation was particularly difficult. She was a young woman who wanted a relationship with her family, while at the same time wanting to live a life free of abuse.
But there were moments we ignored. Moments we chose to dilute.
Moments Jelena Dokic will never forget.
If you need to seek help for issues of family or domestic violence, we urge you to contact 1800RESPECT or Lifeline on 13 11 14.