Jelena Dokic: ‘I was a woman with nothing to aspire to, no goals and dreams left’

Estimated read time 6 min read

When Jelena Dokic released her biography Unbreakable nearly seven years ago, she had no idea of the impact it would have on people, let alone on herself. By laying out in detail the emotional and physical abuse she saysshe suffered throughout her tennis career at the hands of her father, Dokic unleashed a wave that would shape the next phase of her life.

It wasn’t just the outpouring of support that followed the revelations, or the connections forged when others began sharing their experiences with her, it was also the process of writing itself that offered Dokic a new perspective after a lifetime spent focused on one thing and one thing only: tennis.

“Actually having different passions in my life has been so amazing,” she says, as we walk past Rod Laver Arena, the site of many of her earlier-life triumphs and torments, and along the Yarra River in Melbourne. At mid-morning on a Sunday in late summer, the river is streaked with rowers, and cyclists and walkers stream around us as we stroll leisurely under the plane trees.

“I only really discovered that through the journey of writing … That’s why I’ll say it every single day for the rest of my life: Unbreakable changed my life, and it saved my life. It gave me a voice, I was free.”

It’s taken time, but today Dokic no longer only feels like a “victim and survivor”. In the years between the release of Unbreakable and her new book Fearless, she has been figuring out how to turn the challenges of her past into something positive, something meaningful.

“What I want people to get from me is that you can go through a lot of adversity and you can go through a lot of negative experiences, and unpleasant ones, and come out the other side,” she says. “You can still find a way through that, you can still thrive.”

Dokic pauses, then taps me on the arm to emphasise her next point.

“I think that’s what I stand for today,” she says, still nudging me. “I wanted to try to not just come out the other side, but maybe [ask] how can I use it for something good?”

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She has found her answer in writing books, staying involved in tennis through commentating, but also on the speaking circuit. In schools, at sports clubs, in the corporate world and for charity events, Dokic tells her story again and again. Far from your standard motivational talk preaching the grit and persistence of a former athlete, Dokic’s willingness to talk openly about her darker private experiences encourages a deeper type of reflection. It can result in her carrying a heavy burden. She is regularly approached by other survivors of abuse who share their trauma with her.

“I take a lot of that on and it’s daily – some people might say – ‘work’, but I don’t look at it as that,” she says.

Dokic credits her own therapy with enabling her to support others: “I’ve learned a lot about how to deal with situations … how our brain functions and our emotions.”

Social media has enabled her to created her own kind of “family”, she says. Dokic posts regularly on Instagram, sharing daily snippets from her life and engaging with her followers. It does come with trolling, an act which she “doesn’t get”, but she says the one or two abusive comments in every thousand is worth it.

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“I wanted to show people that you can have those tough times, but you’re not alone,” she says. “Because I often felt alone, because I lived in that era when we didn’t talk about domestic violence, and other things.” Talking about her experience, she says, “has actually saved my life at times and I think it’s helped a lot of other people as well.”

This era of her life and career, the talks and all the rest, to Dokic is a vocation. “I do hear horrific stories, and I do connect with people. I feel like it’s my calling.”

As we walk towards the landscaped park of Birrarung Marr on the edge of Melbourne’s CBD, Dokic speaks swiftly, her words flowing with the urgency and clarity of someone whose voice was silenced for so long, embracing the freedom she has found. Her purpose may be clearer now, but it took time to untangle after a tumultuous playing career cut short by injuries and mental health struggles.

“It’s not easy to reinvent yourself or start something new after you’ve been an athlete, because that’s the only thing you’ve ever known your whole life,” Dokic says. After retiring in 2014, and feeling as if she had never reached her full potential as a player, Dokic was adrift.

“I was a woman with nothing to aspire to, no goals and dreams left.

“And to now be doing this – if you told me that 10 years ago, I would have told you that you are literally crazy,” Dokic says, appearing both earnest and awed. “I have a lot of joy in my life now, I’m thriving.”

Jelena Dokic near Rod Laver Arena on the Yarra River in Melbourne, AustraliaView image in fullscreen

We are suddenly interrupted as someone in a purple inflatable unicorn suit zips past us on a scooter. Bemused, we turn back to Rod Laver Arena again, where Dokic not long ago spent 15 days commentating the Australian Open.

“It’s just become really, really special,” she says. Rod Laver remains her favourite court, the Australian Open her favourite grand slam.

The burgeoning of her post-playing career is part of the reason Melbourne means so much to Dokic. After living through the period of the breakdown of the former Yugoslavia, 11-year-old Dokic and her family emigrated to Sydney in 1994, by then she had already been playing seriously for five years and was a national champion in Yugoslavia. Much of the second half of her tennis career – when she was no longer coached by her father – was spent playing and training in Melbourne. The city has been her home for a long time, and despite being the setting for some of the hardest moments of her career (like the hostility she faced after her father forced her to switch to playing for Yugoslavia), the leafy gardens and paths around the Melbourne Park tennis centre now also represent opportunity and growth.

Melbourne is where Dokic realised there was a whole other chapter of her career to come, still within tennis’s orbit, but one which she could define for herself.

“I had role models when I was playing, in Steffi Graf and Monica Seles, they were my heroes,” Dokic says. But there were no heroes for life after sport, life after abuse. There was no one she could look at and say, “they’ve gone through it … you will be OK”.

“If I can be that for one person, I’m the happiest person in the world.” Because Dokic is, after all this, OK.


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