Djokovic: Faith in my Ability
By James Evans
Judged on prize money alone, the summer of 2019 saw Novak Djokovic become the most decorated tennis star ever to have ever played the sport. And yet, as he explains, what enriches him in life is not material wealth, for there are much greater rewards on offer.
In truth, it should follow… that someone of the strength, clarity and optimism of Novak Djokovic should ascend to the very top level of sporting brilliance. They are, after all, characteristics that make good people great. But when you add in the fact his climb almost certainly utilised the stepping stones of faith, there is a deeper, more animated version of this incredible icon that deserves greater exploration.
Even the small details matter to Djokovic. Consider perhaps just the fact that at the end of each day, as he prepares to rest for the night, those quiet moments of reflection are in many ways very similar to key moments on the court… those split seconds when the 31-year-old will clear a space in his mind in advance of firing an Exocet-like serve over the net, or when he stretches a muscular forearm to return a ball arrowing towards him at over 100mph.
Whether wowing crowds at Wimbledon, or Roland-Garros, or Flushing Meadow – all of them very different types of sporting arenas – is it fair to say there is something quite spiritual in those key moments?
‘I think there is a lot of soul-searching that goes into tennis, definitely,’ begins Djokovic, arguably the most complete tennis player of the modern era, and one whose ability to perform on grass, on clay and on the hard court have made him a perennial Grand Slam threat, no matter the location. ‘It is a very personal moment and there are so many things that go through tennis players’ minds as the crowd hushes and the expectation builds. It is a very private thing being played out in a very public space. I think with any individual sport, you have to reach right to the very deepest level to pull out the answers to the questions. There are no teammates, there is nowhere to hide and there is no one but you who can take it over that line.’
Getting over ‘that line’ has been something the Serbian has made look devastatingly easy over the past decade or so, dating right back to his first Grand Slam title, achieved when he beat Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in five sets at the Australian Open in 2008. From that first major title, the 75 ATP singles titles since, including sixteen Grand Slams, right the way through to double glory in 2019 with victories at Wimbledon and, for a seventh time, at Australia’s marquee event, Djokovic has constructed for himself a game plan that very few can get the better of. And yet, as any successful person across any specialism will tell you, it is often not the victories that define you, more the defeats.
In recent years, Djokovic has had to summon up strength and optimism like never before in overcoming crippling injury setbacks. ‘It is in those moments of inactivity that the doubts begin to creep in,’ he says. ‘It is “Why has this happened?”, “What should I have done differently?”, “How long until I can get back?”, “What if I never get back?” These are all the questions that start flooding through the mind, and it is at times like these that you need to be strongest. It is a very different strength to that on the court – this is truly a mental exercise in recovery, and there is nothing automatic about it like there is on the court or in the gym.’
Of course, Djokovic credits his Orthodox Christian faith in going a long way towards helping him overcome what he terms ‘bad moments’. The Serbian was raised in the shadow of the local church in his home city of Belgrade, and has maintained a firm grasp on the principles of faith throughout his career. ‘I come from a very religious country and belief has always been a mainframe for me and my family,’ he says.
Indeed, in April 2011, Patriarch Irinej of Serbia awarded Djokovic the Order of St Sava I class. This counts as the highest decoration of the Serbian Orthodox Church – a reflection on the charitable work he had put into the repair, maintenance and expansion of the monasteries of churches in Kosovo and Metohija.
While Christian values have accompanied him on a truly global pursuit of his craft, tennis, Djokovic admits it has been an education to view how faith is adapted and constructed around the globe. ‘It is interesting to travel the world playing tennis and to see the different attitudes towards religion. I don’t think I’ve ever been to two countries where the feeling has been the same, but certainly I respect the values of everyone I come into contact with. I can say with absolute certainty that faith is one thing that has kept me going. It is there no matter what is happening and how I feel in myself. I will admit, during my career there have been a few occasions where I was mentally lacking – emotionally I questioned in myself things that I did. In those moments I know I had to channel my focus… I had to use my faith to fight my way past it all.’
A deep thinker in tennis terms, the expansion of Djokovic’s family has certainly enabled his Christian ethos to be played out in the celebration and joy of happy times together. ‘The sport I play demands a lot of you all year round, and of course my drive is to remain successful, but you cannot be serious all of the time. Having faith also means having fun and my family have really brought that side out for me.’
Djokovic, wife Jelena and children Stefan and Tara live in Monaco but regularly travel back to Serbia. They have the trappings associated with his £106m career earnings, a total that this summer surpassed the previous record held by Roger Federer. His level of wealth is over three times that of the iconic Boris Becker, even accounting for inflation. And yet, what really matters is something that money will never be able to afford.
Djokovic’s universal appeal may well have a lot to do with his faultless image that is a true reflection of the man, rather than the construct of a marketing or PR team. He’s also helped by his ability to ‘turn up’, no matter what the location or the conditions. While great rivals Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal have limitations on their game – as grass and clay court specialists respectively – the Serbian’s ability to operate across both surfaces stands him apart. Consider a defence-based game as well that drives from the baseline and protects rather than attacks at will, and even in the way he plays tennis, you will see all the strong Christian qualities instilled in him by his parents when growing up.
‘It’s interesting to talk about playing style being a result of experiences in your life, but certainly the control, protection and aggression you show on a court comes from somewhere inside, and it would follow that those are characteristics and actions you would apply to other aspects of your life.’
For Djokovic, growing up in war-torn former Yugoslavia would have certainly cultivated an ethos and an approach to competition – a desire to break free of repression whilst also retaining an element of shelter.
While religion and faith play a big part in giving him the mental strength to keep moving forward, the star – who also works as an ambassador for the United Nations, has assisted educational programmes across various continents and even launched his own self-titled foundation in 2007 – is quick not to want to overplay the significance of Christianity in the raw mechanics of his game.
‘I respect God for so much, but I am always aware that not everyone shares that view, and it is not my place to put those beliefs on others who may just be watching me for the tennis! At the end of the day it is an arm and a racket that get a ball over the net, and I don’t think it’s realistic to believe that praying hard for something can make it happen – personally, that isn’t what prayer does for me. If it was the case that by praying every morning, I could win tournaments then, by logic, everyone else who prays might suppose they can win tournaments. For me that action is much more about reflection, cleansing and hope. It is me saying that I believe in myself and the system, but that I also have humility and courage, and perhaps it is from there that I draw on that extra strength – as well as a talent for hitting a ball over a net! – and that is what ultimately wins tournaments.’
And yet, whether religious or not, Djokovic believes the simple action of stopping, thinking and offering reflection is something we should all perhaps be moving towards in a society that continues to move at a frenetic, almost unsustainable pace. ‘I do believe, in these chaotic times, the simple action of being still, meditating and taking a second to reflect is such a marvellous thing that can offer a huge benefit… it has certainly helped me.’
The wins speak for themselves. Djokovic – and Federer and Nadal – have, in a sense, driven on and inspired each other to heights each individual probably felt unimaginable. At the same time, they have presented a new brand of sports icon; one who has strength, honesty, humility, consistency and longevity in excess. These are characters almost impossibly clean in a sports world still charged and scarred with controversy, bias and a lack of respect.
With that in mind, in recent times Djokovic became a member of the Champions for Peace club. The Monaco-based organisation, which also counts Felipe Massa, Blaise Matuidi and Chris Froome in its number, is committed to serving peace and the message of peace in the world through sport.
‘I like the fact so many in tennis are good ambassadors for the sport, but it’s not always so nice when we lose,’ laughs Djokovic. ‘I will never find it easy to lose, or to admit defeat – I will always be sporting and respectful to an opponent, of course, but the inquest for me begins as soon as we shake hands at the net, and it is not a nice thing.’
The star’s reluctance to admit defeat certainly explains his decision to play through an elbow injury for more than two years. Finally agreeing to treatment when forced to pull out of Wimbledon in 2017, his recovery took him over six months. He told a UK sports magazine, ‘I was standing on court and when I clenched my fist around the handle, I could feel the nerve-endings. The pain was reverberating right down my forearm from my wrist to my elbow. I knew then enough was enough. I had played through that injury because I just couldn’t bear to stop and be out of the game for so long. It was one of injuries that I would constantly keep on hold, but the process of doing that became greater with every month and every year. In the end, I had naturalised so much to the idea of playing whilst injured; I had become accustomed to a process of painkillers and anti-inflammatories.’
While Djokovic stormed back to imperious form, he did recently endure another injury layoff when being forced to pull out of the US Open in a match against Stan Wawrinka. ‘I accept the fact that, with age, it takes longer to recover and maybe these things happen a bit more,’ he says. ‘At the same time, the way I approach the game mentally is now so much sharper than when I was younger, so hopefully I can counterbalance the two. You look at Roger [Federer] – that is exactly what he does. He is brilliant at making positives out of negatives.’
Indeed, for Djokovic, those same Christian values of improvement and replenishment now flood his time away from the sport. Whether renovating a school or opening a new restaurant for homeless people in his native Serbia, or working with UNICEF as a Goodwill Ambassador, the sports icon is driven to making good his Christian upbringing and the beliefs he has always held firm.
‘It is not a choice for me, and it has never been – it is just who I am, and I am so glad of that.’