On the last Monday in August of each year, New York City prepares itself for one of tennis’ most illustrious tournaments, the U.S. Open. For the past two weeks, tennis “die-hards,” comprising of a wide array of celebrities, government officials, athletes from various sports and common fans, flooded the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows, Queens in hopes of seeing their favorite athletes compete at the highest level. Last night, top-seeded Novak Djokovic concluded this year’s tournament by defeating Roger Federer in a four set thriller, capturing his third Grand Slam singles title of the year. Djokovic, an Orthodox Christian, has won three of this year's four majors for the second time in five years. Yet what is most impressive about “Djoker” isn’t his forehand or his backhand. Neither is it his charismatic demeanor, his entertaining hyperbole, nor his humorous off-court impersonations of fellow tennis players. What is most impressive about one of the greatest “returners” of all time is his commitment to humanity.
While Novak Djokovic can attribute most of his superlative athleticism and passion for success to his family (his father, uncle, and aunt were all professional skiers); ultimately, it was the affliction and privation of war in the former Yugoslavia that drove the young prodigy to pursue tennis with an unquenchable fervor that he displays to this day. The superstar would later recount myriad stories that he and his family would hide in their basement for endless hours over the course of three months so that they could evade exploding bombs over Serbia’s capital city of Belgrade.
Whether a frightened clandestine young boy hiding in his parents’ basement for fear of imminent death or a Grand Slam tennis star, Novak Djokovic’s life has been embedded with two very seminal concepts within Orthodox ideology: struggle and empathy. Today’s paramount feast of the Universal Exaltation of the Holy and Life-giving Cross is the par excellence example that embodies both struggle and empathy. As St. Isaac the Syrian would later describe in the seventh century, “the mystery of the Cross is concealed in the sufferings of the Cross.” Thus, empathy cannot precede struggle, but one must struggle in order to be empathetic. Whether or not Djokovic has read the writings of Isaac the Syrian is not of significant importance, yet it is clear that struggle and empathy were foundational for Novak in his formable years.
Novak would later become a role model to countless others, instilling within them the same principles that were instilled within him: faith, philanthropy, work ethic, but most of all, hope. Serbia has one of the lowest participation rates of children in preschool education. Per the Novak Djokovic Foundation website, the number of children aged 3 to 5.5 years in Serbia is about 180,000, and out of that number, only 44% are included in the pre-school education. The percentage of participation is different in urban areas (57%) and less developed areas (about 29%). Cognizant of this stifling statistic, Djokovic would consequently create the “Novak Djokovic Foundation” to help disadvantaged children in Serbia obtain an education and provide resources to lead productive and healthy lives.
A few days prior to the commencement of the U.S. Open on August 31, Djokovic was named a UNICEF “Goodwill Ambassador,” where he will continue to focus his support on improving the lives of children, especially those who are amongst the most marginalized, with a particular focus on the importance of early childhood education and development in providing children with the best start to life. Novak’s desire to make a difference has transformed into a global initiative, turning today’s poverty-stricken and illiterate children into tomorrow’s Grand Slam champions and human rights advocates. His off-court endeavors have elevated his prestige as both a powerful role model and a strong advocate of children’s rights.
The concepts of suffering and empathy are increasingly prevalent in our everyday lives. Since the world has reached a point of spiritual despondency, it has rendered itself morally and ethically sick. We have failed to understand, or rather to accept, that we find salvation through our suffering. Suffering is not simply a draconian conceptualization, but rather, it is something transformative. It is only through the Cross that “joy entered the whole world.” Thus, it is our suffering that brings us true joy.
Djokovic has gone from a child in a war-torn country to one of history’s most dominant tennis players, also addressing the UN General Assembly in one of the five languages that he speaks fluently. Novak has thrived despite experiencing extreme adversity is an attestation to his work ethic and his will to succeed.
I would argue that humanity is in dire need of this caliber of champion. Wouldn’t you?
Theodore Pritsis is the Archdiocesan Fellow at the United Nations through the Office of Inter-Orthodox, Ecumenical, and Interfaith Relations, and holds both a M.Div. and Th.M. from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology.