January seems to be my month for reading true stories. Early this morning, because I couldn’t sleep, I finished reading 2017’s Unbreakable, the story of tennis phenom Jelena Dokic, ghostwritten by Jessica Halloran. I bought this book a week ago and finished it in less than 48 hours. Part of the reason I finished so quickly is because I’m alone this week, but I also found it a very compelling and interesting book. I don’t follow tennis at all, and had never even heard of Jelena Dokic before I read Unbreakable. But her story interested and frustrated me on many levels. I think anyone who has ever had to deal with a controlling, narcissistic, alcoholic person will relate to it.
Who is Jelena Dokic?
Born April 12, 1983 in Croatia, which was then part of the former Yugoslavia, Jelena Dokic once played tennis with the likes of Martina Hingis, Monica Seles, Jennifer Capriati, and both Venus and Serena Williams. But her earliest days in Osijek, Croatia, didn’t lend a hint to the fame and fortune she would eventually attain.
Jelena Dokic’s mother is from Croatia; her father was born in Croatia, but was of Serbian descent. She was an only child until 1991, when her mother gave birth to her beloved brother, Savo. From the very beginning, Jelena adored her brother and saw herself as his protector. His birth was at the time when the Iron Curtain was falling apart, and that included Jelena’s homeland, Yugoslavia, which was really just a conglomeration of different states with different languages and cultures cobbled together.
One day, when Jelena was still very young, she and her father, Damir Dokic, were in a rowboat fishing, when they saw a body floating past. As Yugoslavia was breaking up, people from the different countries were fighting among themselves. Murders were increasingly common as the area became a war zone. The obstetrician who delivered both Jelena and her brother was murdered, prompting the family to temporarily move to Serbia. There, Jelena had to learn the Serbian language as the civil unrest and ethnic and religion based violence continued.
During those early years, Jelena’s father got the idea to see if his daughter could play tennis. Boy, could she… Jelena was a natural talent. From the age of six, she showed everyone that she was born for the game. Reluctant coaches in Serbia didn’t think she could hang with the bigger girls, but she soon proved herself a formidable player. Before she’d hit puberty, Jelena had launched what would turn into a lucrative career.
Enter “Daddy Dearest”…
Besides dealing with the violence of war and the upheaval of moving from Croatia to Serbia, Jelena’s family was poor. For some time, Jelena, her mother, and brother lived in a garden shack owned by relatives. It was rat infested and freezing cold. Meanwhile, her father and other relatives were in Croatia. Jelena’s dad, Damir, came back when it became clear that his daughter had the potential to go far in the tennis world.
The family eventually immigrated to Australia, where Jelena rose in the ranks to become a great tennis player. But she would inspire jealousy among other Aussie tennis players, who weren’t a match for her. Her entire life revolved around winning tennis matches and making money for her abusive father. Jelena’s mother, beaten down by years of abuse, aided and abetted Damir’s tyrannical behavior.
Damir Dokic had a tragically effective way of “motivating” Jelena to succeed. He drove her to train constantly, berated her, called her vile, filthy names, and when she didn’t win on the tennis court, beat her with his leather belt. Damir was also a severe alcoholic with a weakness for white wine and whiskey. He would show up to Jelena’s games rip roaring drunk, screaming at her from the sidelines. Jelena was treated like a commodity. She wasn’t allowed to have friends, and her abusive father would threaten and humiliate her constantly, even when she did well.
Still, in spite of being called names like “whore” and “cow”, and even though her father would regularly terrorize Jelena, and tell her she was a disgrace, the young tennis phenom consistently rose to the occasion. At the pinnacle of her tennis career, Jelena Dokic was ranked number four in the world. For awhile, she was unstoppable, although her father never praised Jelena for her achievements.
But sadly, before Jelena was even twenty-one years old, it all began to unravel. She went through many coaches, endured a narcissistic boyfriend, and through it all, had to face her terrifying father, who leveraged Jelena’s access to her mother and brother to get what he wanted… which was basically ALL of her money and complete control over her career.
A familiar story, yet still shocking…
As I read Jelena Dokic’s story, I was reminded of several other stories of extremely talented and successful people. A couple of years ago, I wrote a review of a book written by Verona van de Leur, a former elite gymnast from The Netherlands who eventually went to prison and then became a porn star. Like Jelena Dokic, Verona was expected to perform and achieve in her sport, mainly because her parents were leeching money from her.
I don’t believe Verona van de Leur ever made as much money as Jelena Dokic did, as Jelena’s father eventually built a mansion with Jelena’s earnings, complete with a wine cellar and stables. He made her agree to keep sending him payments of $200,000, as well as most of her other earnings. Jelena’s father also forced her to sign over her rights to a house paid for with money she won. Naturally, she was also expected to pay the taxes on her winnings, which she soon couldn’t do as she stopped winning. Not winning meant making much less money playing tennis.
I was also reminded of Dominique Moceanu, an American former elite gymnast of Romanian descent, whose father abused her in order to motivate her to achieve. I remember how adorable Dominique was in the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. I didn’t know, at that time, the price she was paying to be at the top of her game in gymnastics. I read and reviewed Dominique’s book, too.
Finally, Jelena’s crazy abuse story reminded a bit of Tina Turner, and her story of being mentored by her ex husband, the late Ike Turner. Although Tina is known for being a great singer, she shared the same tragic fate as Jelena, Verona, and Dominique did. All of these incredibly gifted and talented women basically served as “golden geese” for abusive men who exploited and terrorized them to get money and power from them.
As compelling as Unbreakable is, I have to admit, I found it a frustrating read. Jelena Dokic was caught in a terrible abuse cycle. Over and over again, her father would abuse her in almost every way. He would make her run for miles after exhausting tennis matches or in extreme heat. He would verbally abuse her and terrorize her. Or he would beat her up, kick her with his pointy toed dress shoes, or whip her with his belt. When she became an adult, she would say “enough” and try to leave. But he’d always manage to talk her into coming back for more abuse.
Ditto to other abusers in Jelena’s life. She had a tennis coach who took advantage of her. He wasn’t very experienced in the game, but he was manipulative. More than once, Jelena tried to get rid of him, only to take him back later. She had an abusive, controlling boyfriend of the same ilk who was hard to shake.
On a conscious level, I understand that Jelena was trapped in a cycle of abuse. She was coping the only way she knew how. She didn’t have much help from other people, even though some had seen evidence of her father’s telltale abuse. Jelena was a valuable commodity to a lot of men, and I guess it was easier to allow the blatant terrorism to continue, rather than do something about it. I have had experience with an abusive alcoholic father myself, so I do have an inkling of what Jelena was facing. My dad wasn’t as bad as Jelena’s dad is, either. But still, it was frustrating to read about this very talented and successful woman being horrifically abused, and nothing being done about it. It’s pretty shameful, actually. Fortunately, the story ends well.
I think Jessica Halloran did a fine job writing this book. It’s in the historical present tense, which is kind of different. I never got the sense that I wasn’t reading this book from the source, though, which is a good thing. There are some photos included, too.
Like I mentioned up post, I don’t really follow tennis at all. I’m not into sports. But I could relate to and empathize with Jelena Dokic’s story in Unbreakable. It sounds like she’s gotten her life back on track, as she now works as a tennis coach and motivational speaker in Australia. Jelena’s story is horrific at times, but ultimately, she’s triumphed.
Yes, it took a long time for Jelena Dokic to get to where she is… and that may frustrate some readers, who will see her making the same mistakes repeatedly. I notice some comments on Amazon are about how Jelena didn’t ask for help and/or denied the abuse, and the stories of abuse became “tedious” and “repetitive”.
I think it’s helpful to remember that people who are caught up in abuse don’t have the benefit of clarity. They have been conditioned to accept bad treatment from their abusers, who isolate them and swear them to secrecy by using shame, violence, and fear for other loved ones. In Jelena’s case, it was her beloved brother who served as a bargaining chip. If she didn’t cooperate with her father, she would lose contact with Savo. When abuse victims are in that kind of a bind, it can be especially difficult to break free from tyranny. Yes, it’s frustrating to watch obvious abuse when it happens, but getting away from abuse and “stepping out of the F.O.G.” is legitimately hard.
In any case, I think Unbreakable is worth reading. I’d give it four stars out of five.
As an Amazon Associate, I get a small commission from Amazon on sales made through my site.