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Tennis star Jelena Dokic's fight against abuse, exploitation and vile trolls

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Jelena Dokic has recently experienced savage criticism by online trolls (Screenshot via YouTube)

Former tennis star Jelena Dokic once suffered abuse at the hands of her father and was "othered" in the tennis world; now, she is being trolled over her weight and mental health struggles, writes Zayda Dollie.

*CONTENT WARNING: This article discusses domestic violence and suicide

WHILE ONLINE trolls, notably from Serbia but also Australia, have been taunting former tennis player now commentator Jelena Dokic about her weight and mental health struggles, the Australian media is showing her support.

Jelena Dokic spent the first eight years of her life in Croatia, not Serbia. That she was born and spent her early years in Serbia is a common misconception — one of many that have been cemented in the eyes of the Australian public.

After hastily leaving Croatia and arriving in Serbia as a refugee, it was only then that Dokic learned to read and write the language, mastering the foreign script within a few weeks.

The escape to Serbia at age eight was her first experience as a refugee. The move to Australia at 11 made her a refugee for the second time.

Considered a prodigal talent, Dokic had been playing tennis from the age of six against girls considerably older than her — and beating them.

Her father, Damir Dokic, began physically and verbally abusing her in conjunction with the start of her budding tennis career — her performance, whether good or bad, was the instigator for his violent tirades. Dokic’s tennis and the abuse she received from her father went hand in hand until the end of her career. 

By the time the 11-year-old arrived in Australia in 1994, the women’s tennis scene was already heating up, particularly internationally. The era of Martina Hingis, Lindsay Davenport, Kim Clijsters, and Amélie Mauresmo was about to see its peak and legends like Monica Seles, Steffi Graf, Arantxa Sánchez Vicario and Mary Pierce were still playing, albeit in the twilight of their careers.

Dokic played against all of them. And phenomenally. She beat then World No.1 Martina Hingis in her first round at Wimbledon. She was 16 years old. Dokic then advanced so quickly in the world of international tennis that she was ranked fourth in the world by the time she was 20.

Her achievements on the court have since been overshadowed by the turmoil that plagued her life off the court. This fact says as much about Jelena Dokic as it does about the Australian public and its media landscape back then.

That Dokic had an abusive father seems to be common knowledge but the extent of it, that she was hit each and every time she played, often with a leather belt; was forced to stand hours on end with no food or water; that the beatings were so brutal her entire back was often blue from bruises and her shins bore welts from kicks, is less spoken about.

Another aspect of having an abusive father is that for the young tennis star, the public humiliation she had to endure because of her father’s behaviour was in many ways worse.

As Dokic said in her autobiography with Jessica Halloran, unbreakable:

‘The physical abuse I can handle behind closed doors. But this, the public carry-ons, is awful. It rocks me to my core. The embarrassment is worse than the physical abuse because the public meltdowns are out of my hands.’

Damir Dokic, at the height of his daughter's career, gained notoriety first for his screams from the sidelines, his pacing and smoking of pipes in stadiums when watching, and eventually for his heavy drinking and full-blown outbursts at high-profile events.

The Australian press branded him more as a public nuisance than a threat, but the hold he had over his daughter was far more sinister. Though she was a rising star, it is easy to forget that at her peak she was just a 16-17-year-old girl under her father’s violent rule.

She was vilified by the public and media for spouting conspiracy theories about the Women’s Tennis Association being rigged. The truth is, as revealed in her autobiography, Dokic was quite literally given a script to follow by her father before press conferences — forced to say his words and voice his criticisms, and she complied knowing that if she didn’t, he would punish her violently.

At the time she still lived with her mother and younger brother and feared repercussions for all of them. Her mother continued to endure abuse from Damir and her brother, a young child at the time, was witness to it all. 

The role the Australian press played at the time seldom helped her cause. Jelena Dokic says that her father, fuelled by attention, had a direct line to journalists, newspapers and television reporters and they called him liberally, knowing they could easily get a sensationalist headline out of one of his rants.

For Dokic, her relationship with the Australian public and media suffered severely because of this.

The climax came when her father, feeling scorned by Tennis Australia, forced her to renounce her citizenship and play instead under the Serbian flag. This is something she did unwillingly — there was no alternative but to obey her abusive father.

The Australian press – by this stage fairly aware of the physical abuse that competitors and officials had been witnessing since Dokic was a junior champion – still did not take kindly to this. The public, in turn, ate it up.

Dokic says of her match against Lindsay Davenport at the Australian Open in 2001 that she became the first player to be jeered walking out onto centre court.

Of the boos she received before the match, Dokic wrote:

‘This is the worst moment not only of my career but my life. It’s a terrible feeling to know that people who had once passionately willed me on are now sneering at me. I feel that I have let everyone down.’

It has taken Jelena Dokic years to repair her relationship with the public, the press and the Australian world of tennis that once shut her out. Despite the fact that her father’s embarrassing behaviour and outright abuse singled her out from her peers, the feeling of being “othered” is one that has run deep for Dokic since her arrival as a child.

At her primary school in Sydney, she was dubbed “mole face” and at a junior championship in Canberra – after asking to join the other junior players in a card game – she was told, “Go back to your country”.

Throughout her meteoric rise as a 13-year-old playing and winning under-18s tournaments, Dokic says other parents were quick to suggest that she was taking spots other players deserved, exploiting scholarship opportunities and receiving an unfair advantage — all because she had arrived as a refugee, spoke with a mild accent and was “different.”

It seems that now, as a commentator, television personality and someone who conducts interviews with players rather than reluctantly giving them, Dokic is no longer cursed by the feeling of otherness.

Where once headlines of her father’s most recent embarrassments were news, the Australian media now defends her stance, her story and her — as a human being, not just as a former athlete who once championed the green and gold at the Sydney Olympics.

The vulnerabilities of young players have always been a concern, no less now than they were a decade ago.

Mistakes were made, not only by associations and authorities in tennis but by the Australian press, perfectly captured by ABC's Richard Hinds’ admission “we should have done more”. These errors, however, have hopefully paved the way for the next generation of young athletes to receive the protection they deserve.

At the very least, the fact that Jelena Dokic can now speak openly, publicly, with her own voice (recently admitting to having experienced suicidal thoughts) is a sign of how much has changed for the better.

If you would like to speak to someone about domestic violence or suicide, please call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

Zayda Dollie is a sports journalist who believes in athlete story-telling, the redemptive power of sport and having female voices heard.

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