First and foremost, congratulations Jelena Dokic for a job well done. It’s been a nearly 9-year long job that, while everyone had long since given up on her, she herself never quit. Her perseverance paid off with her first WTA singles title since 2002, back when she was No 4 in the world.
I have a tremendous soft spot in my heart for Jelena, and every athlete who’s had to deal with a parent from hell. In tennis, the list seems to be endless.
Mirjana Lucic, in the midst of a resurgence herself, told a Croatian newspaper about growing up with her father: "Beatings... there have been more of them than anyone can imagine. Sometimes it was because of the lost game, in other cases for the lost set. I don't want to even say what happened after the matches I lost.”
Mary Pierce claims her father Jim would slap her when she lost matches, or just had a bad practice. He punched a spectator at the 1993 French Open and was so out of control (at one point screaming out during a match, “Mary kill the b****!”) that he inspired “The Jim Pierce Rule,” which gave the tour the power to ban parents for bad behavior. That’s exactly what happened to Aravane Rezai’s father Arsalan, banned indefinitely from the tour for an offense which remains shrouded in secrecy but allegedly involved her boyfriend. Aravane has since dismissed her father’s behavior as a “disagreement.”
This is the trickiest thing for me. I don’t presume to know Aravane’s relationship with her father, but I do know his reputation (prior offenses include allegations of threatening the parents of her opponents and, according to Anna Chakvetadze, headbutting Elena Vesnina’s father). When you’re locked in a family dynamic like this it’s impossible to see straight, or see your way out. Said Jelena of her own situation growing up with perhaps the worst sports parent of all, Damir Dokic, “You can't expect a 15-year-old not to defend the father of your family."
Jelena grew up alongside a man who at various times laid down drunk in the middle of the street, had to be forcibly removed from the 2000 U.S. Open after throwing a tantrum over the price of a piece of salmon, broke a reporter’s phone in a drunken rage and threatened to kidnap Jelena herself. In 2009 he admitted hitting his daughter “for her sake.” When she went on record in 2009 that Damir abused her growing up, his response was to threaten to blow up the Australian embassy if she didn’t retract her accusations. Lo and behold, a police search of his home would find he had the bombs to do it. From his prison cell he gave an interview saying Jelena “can’t win without me.”
Jelena climbed back on top
Jelena’s treatment at the hands of her father was her normal. She didn’t know any different. So there was a time she’d defended him. Thankfully she came to understand that his behavior was unacceptable and she moved on from him. But not well. Tears followed her everywhere. Her career implosions seemed to be an annual event, and each time no one saw her climbing from the giant smoking char-filled crater it created.
Said Jelena to the Guardian, "Your family is the one that's supposed to love you no matter what, unconditionally. So when you lose that you realize that no matter what you're alone in the world. Because how many real friends do you have in your life, that are always going to be there? I had to learn that whatever happens in the world, I had to deal with that alone."
Deal with it she did. She seemed to rise from the ashes at the Australian Open in 2009, and she had a nation behind her (a nation, it should be noted, that didn’t know what to do with her by that point). Each win generated so much goodwill. And yet that success crippled her. Suddenly eyes were on her again, she had points to defend, and she wasn’t emotionally prepared to handle it all. Tongues wagged. Here we go, Jelena’s imploding again. She just can’t keep it together.
This is where I get angry. When people don’t consider what emotional roller coasters children of abusive parents suffer from birth. Who see slumps and just categorically dismiss these players as lost cause messes who should be stronger than they are.
I wish we wouldn’t judge these players’ emotional outbursts, or the rough roads they travel. The choices they make. They may be multi-millionaire tennis stars, but they’re also trying to rebound from a terrible start to life and just get by like everyone else.
I wish adults behind the scenes and on the back courts during lonely practices would open their eyes more to abuse of any kind, physical or emotional, and – even if it’s ‘not their kid’ or ‘not their place’ - feel empowered enough to intervene. Because you’d be surprised by how few people these young people have in their lives who can do just that. They’re isolated by design. Good on the WTA for patrolling. I hope they step it up. If players who’ve been there could lend additional support, players like Jelena, Mary and Mirjana, how amazing would that be?
I wish Damir had spent more time loving Jelena the daughter rather than Jelena the trained assassin. I wish all tennis parents could see their children not as an extension of themselves, or a possession, or a doll they’ve molded out of clay that can’t function without their ‘love’, leave the coaching to the professionals and just be a mom or a dad.
I wish people would see that all of these players mentioned aren’t weak-willed victims who can’t hold it together, forever broken, but survivors who’ve shown unbelievable strength in mounting comebacks or just refusing to go away at all, on the tennis court or in life.
At the very least, I hope Damir Dokic and every other SOB tennis parent that beats into their child the idea that they can never succeed without them was watching when Jelena hoisted that great big beautiful trophy.
Raise it high Jelena. And smile.
Follow James at twitter.com/JamesLaRosa.