Jelena Dokic: Our care was not what we thought it was

Now that Jelena Dokic has elaborated on the full horror of her teenage years, a kind of unofficial inquest has begun to determine who failed her, and in what proportion. Apart from the most obvious and indictable culprit, her monstrous father Damir, fingers have been pointed at and between Tennis , the Women’s Tennis Association, tennis generally and the media.
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The tennis-loving public cannot be entirely absolved. When Dokic, under what we suspected then and know now was immense personal duress, “defected” from to take up again with Yugoslavia at the 2001 n Open, she was roundly booed by the Melbourne crowd.

Then tournament director Paul McNamee, fearing these ugly scenes, had asked if court announcer Craig Willis might gloss over her amended nationality when introducing her that night, but he was a stickler for protocol. It was not a proud hour.

Whatever all those in Dokic’s orbit saw or failed to see, whatever they overlooked, or averted in their gaze, whatever they knew or feared, but felt powerless to act against, whatever they felt was none of their business, one thread runs through them all. Much as everyone, including fans, said they cared for Dokic, actually they cared for what she could do for them. She was bound for major trophies and lasting stardom, and the gleam would reflect on us all.

How do I know? Because ‘s affection for Dokic died the second she became un-n. Worse, it transmuted into its opposite. Don’t you remember the splutterings of indignation that she had taken our money and exploited our system and would deliver the benefits to somewhere else, as if we had bestowed all that largesse upon her out of the goodness of our hearts and the way she had captured them, instead of the truth, that it was an investment we wanted returned in big chunky silver trophies for our national mantelpiece?

It’s disingenuous to pretend otherwise. Dokic always was unknowable at any other level. She was remote, severe, suspicious, unsmiling, blank at best, sullen at worst. Who could have blamed her? Who in her shoes would not have been? Her coaches barely knew her, other players not at all. They had to fake their affection. All that we knew is that she had a difficult journey with an impossible family, though we only know now how difficult, how impossible. But she could play tennis.

She was a girl, a kid. When she made the quarter-finals at Wimbledon in 1999, she was 16 and not old enough to play a full program of matches on the tour. When she made the semis the next year, she was 17, not old enough to enter the AFL draft, for instance. But she was old enough to be blasted.

When it all started to unravel for her that year, on the court and off, when forces we could only guess at but now know in gruesome full were beginning to tear her apart, this kid was made to answer for it in press conferences, all alone. I remember two at the n Open still, questions raining down, room packed to the rafters, and in the back of that room representatives of her management company, and sponsors, and tennis officialdom, watching. I wrote then that it had the feel of preying.

Dokic disappeared from our consciousness for a few years. That, she says now, was the worst decision of her life, though plainly it was barely her decision at all. When she returned, so did the warmth, because it still might have been possible for the long-ago promised and long good times to roll yet, but perhaps also because of an element of sympathy towards and empathy with her as a person. We still do a profitable line in redeemed prodigal offspring.

On court one night at the n Open in 2009, Dokic even had the humility to apologise publicly to director Craig Tiley for having been so difficult all these years. As a nation, we should have been able to say, don’t mention it. Dokic willed herself to a quarter-final that year, and it was the feel-good story of the tournament. In charge of herself now, in media briefings she even opened up a little on miseries. It was cathartic.

But too many years had been lost to be made up. Dokic never again made it past the second round of a major, and five years later retired.

I’m conscious that to extend understanding to Dokic but not to Bernard Tomic may be seen as hypocritical. Prima facie, his tennis journey has been less of an ordeal than Dokic’s, and he looks altogether less haunted. In time, we may be defenceless against the charge of a surfeit of piety when it comes to Tomic.

For now, let’s deal with the now seemingly closed case. Dokic was failed first and unforgivably foremost by her father, whose malign influence was so complete that no one else got to know the fullness of her childhood and teenage trauma. Nonetheless, at a certain point, we should have guessed. Dokic was let down not in malice, or by indifference or carelessness as such, but because our care was not what we thought it was, not what we convinced ourselves it was. If this inquest reaches one conclusion, that must be it.

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