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Tennis news: Destanee Aiava battles suicidal thoughts, borderline personality disorder

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Tennis prodigy Destanee Aiava first tried to end her own life at age eight and was this year talked down from a bridge. LINDA PEARCE tells a harrowing story that holds fresh hope. WARNING: This story discusses suicide.

TRIGGER WARNING: This story contains discussions of suicide and mental illness

The first time Destanee Aiava remembers feeling like she wanted to end her life, she was eight years old.

“Obviously it didn’t work out,’’ she says, matter-of-factly, of the unsuccessful attempt. “I was a little girl, I was alone in my room and that was that. Then I just walked out like nothing happened.’’

On Easter Sunday this year, not wanting to make it to her upcoming 22nd birthday, the one-time tennis prodigy climbed up on the railing of a bridge in Doveton, near her home in Melbourne’s outer south-east.

Devastated by having been ‘’ghosted” without explanation by a male acquaintance, just months after a broken engagement had already triggered deep-seated abandonment issues, a sequence of events left Aiava “feeling unworthy of being loved”, as she later wrote on Instagram.

On that terrible April night, she was crying uncontrollably.

Determined to jump.

Convinced there was no alternative.

Car after car drove past, some tooting their horns as she climbed like this was some kind of spectator sport.

“I was like, ‘These people suck! Like, what’s wrong with you?’’’ she says now.

“Even on the rails, I was fully aware of how I was acting and what I was doing and I could still put myself in someone else’s shoes and be like, ‘If I was watching someone do this, I would not be driving past right now’.

“It’s a very weird, disordered way of thinking.’’

But one, finally, she now better understands.

Fortunately, one car did pull over to help save a young life. After their initial approach was rebuffed, the driver and two passengers eventually talked down a reluctant Aiava and helped her off the railing.

The trio of strangers said they wouldn’t leave without her, assured her she was not alone, and delivered her safely home.

*****

A few weeks later, Aiava marked her 22nd birthday with a quiet, almost-box-ticking family picnic in a park. She was still around to blow out the candles but also, she knew, still not quite right.

After a break from tennis of almost two months, and a doctor’s consultation that provided a prescription she ignored “because I never really believed in meds’’, Aiava shelved a planned US trip for mental health reasons in favour of resuming competition domestically.

It started with back-to-back ITF $US15,000 finals in Caloundra. She retired from the second with a jarred knee, then withdrew from week two of a scheduled Darwin double in September to return to Melbourne for a psychiatric assessment.

“I was having panic attacks before all my matches and I was like, ‘I need help. This is ridiculous’,” says the world No.369.

The diagnosis: borderline personality disorder (BPD).

Aiava is now medicated, willingly, to help stabilise her mood, and consults regularly with her psychiatrist. Understanding her condition and what’s needed to manage it has helped to explain so much of what Aiava suffered for so long, and largely alone.

“I feel emotions so much more intensely than a ‘normal’ person would,’’ she says. “So if I’m sad, I’m pretty much suicidal, which is so hard to deal with, and if I’m happy, I’m over the moon.

“BPD it’s like a constant rollercoaster every day. So within five minutes, I could go through the five stages of grief and then I’ll go through a manic state after, like, 10 minutes. So that’s what I’m experiencing every day. Which is hectic!

“And I’m pretty sure it’s why my life since I was that little girl has been so rocky.

“Up until this point.’’

*****

Just weeks after turning 12, Aiava hit with the legendary Steffi Graf after winning a French Open sponsor’s event in Paris.

“I want to become the No.1 in the world and be the best player and I think I have a good chance of achieving that,’’ the powerful baseliner told this tennis writer at the time.

Her progress in the next few years, as she tracked significantly ahead of her age group internationally, backed up the optimism.

It also ramped up the expectation.

“I did feel a lot of pressure. I knew people were telling me I was good, but I think I underestimated myself and never gave myself enough credit for even my ranking, or whatever.

“When you look at it, it’s a really good achievement but as tennis players, we see this number and it’s not as great in our minds.’’

Such as No.147. Her best. Achieved five years ago at the age of 17. Only two Australians — late-20s pair Ajla Tomljanovic (33) and Daria Saville (54) — are currently ranked higher.

“I’m pretty sure back then I was like, ‘That’s nothing’. But now that I look at it, I’m pretty sure that’s really good!’’ Aiava laughs.

“It’s super tough. Even now, I’m just trying to keep telling myself that I belong there and I’m good. So I just completely got rid of the expectation. Now I’m doing it for myself.’’

Fast forward five years after our first interview. To Aiava as the star local attraction at a busy Kooyong media call, her progress having just accelerated spectacularly. On debut at the 2017 Brisbane International, the talented youngster with the unusual name, coached by her mother Rosie, had just become the first player born in the 2000s to win a WTA main draw match.

Another 12 months on, at her second Australian Open, the 193rd-ranked local famously held two first-set points against world No.1 Simona Halep on Rod Laver Arena, before momentum swung on a medical time-out and the biggest match of her life slipped away.

On the surface, everything seemed to be tracking well, though. Underneath, not so much, for there was apparently one crisis of identity and another relating to the escalating challenges at home.

“I think there was quite a long period of time there where, from a Tennis Australia standpoint, we just didn’t know what we didn’t know because so much of what she was doing was with her family,’’ says senior TA staffer and former head of women’s tennis, Nicole Pratt.

“It wasn’t until probably a little bit later that we did start to understand the extent of where she was at, mentally.’’

That includes what Pratt calls “dark behaviours”, such as beating herself up to an unreasonable degree at training or over losses that were treated like they were “the end of the world”. A lack of perspective and self-love were both evident, but met by a determined duty of care commitment from TA that stretched far beyond rhetoric, Pratt says.

“I feel very comfortable with what Tennis Australia have done to try and support Destanee throughout her journey. Particularly when she made the decision to move to Sydney and work with (coach) Nicole Kriz there, I think that was maybe more of a turning point where we could have a greater influence, you could say.’’

Kriz’s efforts to help were, by all accounts, extraordinary. The pair remain close, having shared some desperately difficult times from 2018-20.

“Tennis was all I knew, so I just wanted to spend my time as a normal kid and even now, I’m still catching up on being a kid. Like, mentally, I’m 50 years old. I’ve already lived a life that normal people (don’t),’’ Aiava says.

“And I’m 22, so it’s just crazy. I’m just trying to enjoy life as much as possible. Go to concerts, festivals, anything I can to enjoy my time and then I’m happy to play on court. As long as I keep a healthy balance, then I’m good.’’

The teenager used to ask to be called Des, loathing the first name that was inspired by her pregnant mum feeling that, after some “crazy” times for the Pacific Islander family, “it was meant to be, so my first child would be named Destanee’’.

These days, Des/Dessy/Destanee is happy to be known as any or all three, feels blessed to have reconciled with her family despite what was a tough upbringing – “which is why I’m the way I am’’ – and says the desire to provide her loved ones with financial security has replaced the more performance-related goals of her 12-year-old self.

“Oh, it’s very different. Now I just want to earn enough to provide for my family and friends, retire them, retire myself at a reasonable age, have a family and stuff, that’s my goals.

“Win some grand slams and I want a mental health foundation as well. That’s it so far.’’

Still some big goals, as we point out the almost-casual slam reference did not go unnoticed. Also an understanding of the small steps along the comeback road, though, which included last week‘s relatively minor singles title, at the second tier LaTrobe City Traralgon International, in a three-set, two-hour final against Lizette Cabrera.

“That was just confirmation I’m heading in the right direction,’’ Aiava says.

“I was just telling myself this morning on the way to training, ‘Well, I think I’m actually really good at tennis!’ Just thinking about how much I’ve gone through in the past couple of years and ending my year on a pretty good high, which wasn’t expected.

“I’ve had so many struggles and it’s nice to know that I’m still trying to make it in tennis. Especially since I’ve wanted to stop so many times, but now I feel I am starting to pick up again and I can actually make something of myself.

“I’m a lot more mature. I’ve learnt so many things. I have so much life experience and I can use that on the court and just remember everything that I’ve gone through hasn’t been for no reason.

“So I use that as motivation: a little girl wanting to be No.1 in the world. So now I just am trying to get back to where I belong.’’

*****

The little girl with the old soul had what she calls a “rule-with-an-iron-fist” upbringing from her American Samoan-born mum Rosie and dad Mark, a New Zealander of Samoan descent.

“BPD can be genetic but it’s mainly caused by trauma as a child. It could be physical, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, anything like that, and break-ups are pretty much the worst thing ever. Mine stemmed from major abandonment issues.

“I grew up with domestic violence and stuff, then dad left home and my parents got divorced, so I think that’s where my abandonment issues come from; and from then, my first break-up, that was bad.

“Every break up I’ve had I’ve been left, so I think my BPD just got worse and worse.’’

Not knowing then what her condition was, Aiava had seen several psychologists over the years. Some sport-related. Others not.

“I just never found one that clicked and I don’t think anyone actually took the time to understand why I was the way I was,’’ she says.

“Even on court, everyone was just like, ‘Oh, she’s tanking, blah, blah blah’. Little did they know that I have a mental illness which pretty much I can’t control. I’m fully aware when I go through triggers and manic episodes, but I literally can’t stop it.’’

The “ghosting“ was the cause of the Easter spiral, along with a period of harsh self-reflection and despair that included her attempts to revive her tennis career.

Unsure what she was doing with her life or where she was headed, what Aiava did know was that the part of her that was so deeply unwell needed an escape.

“I was like ‘You know what? I’m done. That’s it’.’’

Mercifully not, as it turned out, and although Aiava says social media is her “outlet”, she was nevertheless surprised by the response to her dramatic Instagram reveal.

“I like to be as authentic as possible, so I didn’t really think much of it cos I’ve shared stuff like that before. So I was like, ‘Whatever, that’s me just getting it out and then I’ll move on, forget about it’.

“But then a week later, I woke up to some messages. They were like, ‘Oh, thank you so much for sharing your story’. I was like, ‘What story?’ I was like, ‘That’s done and dusted. I don’t know what you’re talking about, but OK!’

“And then I saw a news thing and it was on me, and I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh. Whoops’. Then people just started messaging me and I heard from my coach (Kriz) and everyone, so it was a bit overwhelming because I felt like I was reliving that moment again and I’d put it to rest.

“But then I felt a lot better because I had helped some people feel more comfortable to talk about their struggles; and especially in athletes as well, I think it’s not talked about enough.’’

Nick Kyrgios is another in the sport who has shared his mental health struggles, including tales of self-harm, and Aiava says that although the pair have not spoken directly about their experiences, she admires his honesty and would welcome the chance.

Indeed, since her own diagnosis, Aiava has enjoyed researching and learning about BPD, including hearing about others who share it and are willing to speak up.

“There is a massive stigma. It’s like, ‘They can’t hold a healthy relationship and they’re just crazy, and what not’,’’ she says.

“Even when we get compared to people like Kanye (West) – he’s got bipolar but I do understand him! When I see him in his manic episodes, I’m like, ‘OK, he’s not alone, that’s just who they are’.’’

For an educated Aiava, everything makes more sense now. “I would be functioning completely different to everyone else I knew and I’d be wondering, ‘Why don’t you feel how I feel? I feel so much rage’.

“After finding out, I was, ‘OK, this is why, this is how I got it’, and I’m learning how to better manage it and recognise triggers and just stay away from people who trigger me.’’

*****

The indoor facility at Melbourne’s National Tennis Centre is empty apart from the two pals hitting, laughing and chatting. Just how Aiava likes it.

She is wearing an orange Billie Eilish concert T-shirt while practising with New Zealander Katherine Westbury, her best friend, “support person” and partner in a successful doubles final the previous day in Traralgon.

Aiava – who impressed insiders who saw her back in the NTC gym by 8am, the morning after winning two titles at a venue several hours away in Gippsland – says she cannot afford a coach. She “souvenired” some balls from Traralgon that she uses on the free Tennis Australia practice courts, where she turns up with hope rather than a booking but has not been turned away.

The multiple former winner of Tennis Australia’s best female junior athlete award acknowledges the many years of help she received from TA when she was one of the nation’s brightest young stars.

“Yeah, I did. Now I don’t. It’s been tough. I’ve got a mortgage now, so I’m just trying to hustle, honestly, yeah.’’

Money matters aside, the no-coach decision is also a choice, she says, for she wants and needs to figure things out herself. Might be a pride thing, Aiava muses. But seems to be working at the moment, so she will continue that way.

“I’m pleased to hear that she feels like she wants to figure it out on her own, because she has actually had a lot of support,’’ says Pratt, who says there has been no “stop-point’’ and that a pro agreement can be triggered at a certain ranking, to provide access to strength and conditioning and physio, for example.

Plus some form of coaching, with an invitation to Aiava to join the pre-season squad that Pratt is preparing for the local summer circuit.

“In the past, everyone’s probably been telling Destanee what to do or suggesting what she should do, and what we’ve seen is when players start to make their own decisions and take responsibility, often there’s a more positive outcome for them,’’ Pratt says.

Aiava’s interrupted year is now over. The next will start at the WTA 500 tournament in Adelaide, ideally, but in the ITF-60 event in Canberra, otherwise. She is hopeful of a wildcard into Australian Open qualifying, having been in the main draw most recently in 2021, when she suffered a dispirited first-round loss to veteran Sam Stosur.

The Victorian says she still loves competing, and big stages. If she was not a tennis player she would fancy being an actress, having always wanted to be famous, and remaining unashamedly fond of the so-called “perks” and off-court opportunities that come with being a celebrity.

Clearly, Aiava enjoyed a few more of those in her heady teenage days, when she practised at Wimbledon with her idol Serena Williams, logged career wins over the likes of Naomi Osaka and 2021 French Open champion Barbora Krejcikova, and upset top-tenner Aryna Sabalenka on Dutch grass.

“It was nice but I think better is coming,’’ she says of her career so far. “They were all just little confirmations that I’m a good tennis player, I can do it, as long as mentally you’re fine, which now I am.

“Well, I’m getting there. So now from here on, I think I’ll just climb.’‘

Pratt sees so much upside and potential, still. Not that it matters compared with Aiava’s health and wellbeing.

“She’s lived two lifetimes already, I would say. For me, and I’ve said this to her, I just want her to be happy. ‘Forget tennis, you just need to be happy’.’’

*****

Aiava is able to laugh that she failed to get the first and only non-tennis job she applied for: in Kath and Kim retail territory, at a sports store in her local shopping centre, Fountain Gate.

Fortunately, she thinks she has a better plan for her eventual post-tennis life.

“I’m going to do a tattoo course,’’ says the proud owner of more than 20 pieces of body art, including the birth year of her parents and “Til death do us part, you have my whole heart’’, written in fine ink on her right hand.

Aiava insists the catalyst for the latter was not her former fiance. Nor has someone who declares herself “a massive hopeless romantic — I love love’’ temporarily sworn off dating, for fear of how it might end. “I have for, like, five minutes, but that’s it!’’

Still, a lot else has changed for, and within, Aiava since Easter Sunday. “I’m not around the people I was around any more. Obviously I’ve gotten help. I know all my triggers and I know how I react now. I know why that happens,’’ she says.

“Back then, I would think it’s embarrassing that I even tried to do that after I got ‘ghosted’, but now I’m like, ‘Well, it’s not embarrassing, a lot of people feel like that’. And it’s not ‘normal’, but it should be normalised and not stigmatised’.’‘

Aiava, incidentally, has had no more contact with the three strangers who stopped to help that night as other cars drove on.

Yet while she is unsure if the unknown trio are aware of their part in this story, the young woman they helped to save will be forever grateful that a random act of kindness means it’s one she is still here to tell.

A finalist in the 2021 Harry Gordon Australian Sports Journalist of the Year Award, Linda Pearce is a Melbourne-based sportswriter with more than three decades experience across newspapers, magazines and digital media, including 23 years at The Age. One of the first women in Australia to cover VFL/AFL and cricket, she has won media awards across a range of sports – including internationally, as the recipient of the ATP’s 2015 Ron Bookman Media Excellence Award. A tennis specialist who has reported from over 50 major tournaments, including 13 Wimbledons, Linda has also covered two Olympic and two Commonwealth Games, plus multiple world championships in gymnastics and aquatics and five Netball World Cups.

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