Novak Djokovic: The children's champion
The children's champion
Novak Djokovic is the world’s number one male tennis player and has won 74 Grand Slam and Masters men’s singles titles since 2006. He’s also one of sport’s highest-paid stars, earning $23.5 million last year according to Forbes’ 2018 ranking. His deal with clothing sponsor Lacoste is reportedly worth $9 million a year, and other sponsors include racket manufacturer Head, apparel maker Asics and watch company Seiko.
But what is lesser known about the tennis star is his Novak Djokovic Foundation, an organization he started in 2007, focusing on preschool education for children in his native Serbia. Since its founding, it has opened 43 kindergartens and has trained more than 1,500 teachers.
“There is no better way to change the community or change the world or save the world than through children,” Djokovic told “CNBC Meets: Defining Values.”
Research has shown that early education benefits children throughout life, and poor-quality environments are more likely to have negative effects on language, social development and performance at school. It’s a focus for Djokovic because his early childhood set him up for success as an adult, he says.
“I have been very fortunate and blessed to play … this sport that I love, that I fell in love with when I was four, but also to be globally recognized and very successful in that sport … and I keep on pinching myself and reminding myself how grateful I am. But I still have paid a great deal of attention and responsibility toward those values that were instilled in me in a very, very early age,” he told CNBC’s Tania Bryer.
“I think every athlete has a huge platform, and we have a megaphone in our hands. Every word that we say transcends quite far, and echoes in the ear of a lot of young people around the world. I try to use it in a right way for the right reasons, and I care a lot about every child having an equal access to the right conditions to grow up into the best versions of themselves (for) tomorrow.”
Djokovic’s wife, Jelena, believes helping children at an early age can prevent later issues such as drug abuse or violence. Now global CEO as well as co-founder of the foundation, she told CNBC: “At the age of zero to six you're starting to learn about the life with others, about your values. Your thoughts are starting to form and you're starting to understand better ... the research and the science behind it showed that actually if we start investing in that particular age group we are going to prevent everything bad that is happening in the world.”
Djokovic was born in 1987, four years before the outbreak of war in the former Yugoslavia, which made for a tough environment. “For us that have lived in times when there were sanctions and embargo, and you kind of wait in line for bread and milk, let alone buying a tennis racket or paying for a tennis lesson — that was quite expensive,” he told CNBC.
He went to school in Belgrade, while holidays were spent in the mountain resort of Kopaonik, where his parents ran a pizza restaurant. “I was fortunate to grow up in a family where we nurtured the values of giving back, empathy, compassion, understanding of community, understanding of social service. I used to spend a lot of times outdoor(s).”
Aged four, Djokovic “fell in love” with tennis, while watching a training camp run by the late Jelena Gencic. One day, she invited him on to the court. “I knew he would become a champion,” she said of seeing him play. Gencic, who he nicknamed his “tennis mother,” coached him for the next few years.
“We used to spend a lot of time talking about life, not just sport you know. Of course, we used to watch videos of tennis players. We used to roam the world and (U.S. tennis player) Pete Sampras being obviously my role model at the time and someone that I looked up to, and we used to listen to classical music, read poetry. So, she had that very holistic approach to life,” Djokovic said.
Eventually she advised the family to let Djokovic train at the Niki Pilic Tennis Academy in Munich, Germany. Aged 13, he went there for stints of two to three months at a time.
“I feel that the support that I had from Jelena Gencic, my parents, the closest people in tennis that I grew up with, have allowed me to (succeed), even though there was a lot going on ... in my country, and I had to skip many tournaments and could not travel to places because we couldn't afford it,” Djokovic told CNBC.
His parents allowed him to dream beyond the hardship the region was suffering. “I was spared those hardship times and moments that my parents had to go through because they wanted me to be just present. They wanted me to enjoy the moment, to live my dream, to have a care(free) childhood, to spend time outdoors, and to share the quality time with everyone around me … That was the base for what was coming up after that in tennis and life in general.”
In 2002, Djokovic had won tournaments in France, the U.S. and Serbia, and moved up the rankings of the junior divisions.
By 2005 he had qualified for his first Grand Slam tournament, the Australian Open, and in 2006 he reached the quarter final of the Roland Garros in Paris, France, finishing the year ranked 16 for men’s tennis. In 2008, he won the Australian Open, his first Grand Slam title, beating Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.
In July 2011, Djokovic realized his dream of winning Wimbledon, and he finished the year the world’s number one male tennis player.
Winning Grand Slam titles has proven Djokovic’s theory that anything is possible, with the right mindset. “If you care enough about it, if you are determined enough, if you really are devoted to it, if you love it truly with your heart, then you can reach it. Everything you visualize, you will attract, and it becomes your reality,” he told CNBC.
Djokovic’s rise was not without its setbacks. In 2010, he had breathing difficulties and vomited during a toilet break in the Australian Open quarter final against Tsonga and lost the match. A Serbian doctor, Igor Cetojevic, was watching the match on TV by chance, and contacted Djokovic via a mutual friend of his father’s. He found the tennis player was gluten and dairy intolerant and suggested he try a gluten-free diet for a fortnight. It worked almost straight away, and now Djokovic eats a diet of vegetables, beans, white meat, fish, pulses, fruit and nuts.
In February 2018, Djokovic had surgery on his elbow, to try to cure an injury that had troubled him for two years. That summer, he went on to claim his fourth Wimbledon victory.
“As (with) everyone else, I'm going through those moments of questioning everything even to this day, and confidence is (the) easiest thing to lose and the hardest thing to get in sports and in life in general. So, you just have to work and you really truly have to love yourself, and understand that you do deserve a place in this world, that you have the skill and talent.”
Djokovic is now in a place of reflection, he told CNBC. How important is it for him to still beat records?
“It's a question that I ask myself, to be honest with you. How important it is for me to break records in tennis? Is it more important than time I spend with my family? Is it more important than my health? Is it more important than anything else really? And it's a very good question.”
“Do I still have (a) 100% answer on that? No. I'm going through the process ... I'm talking a lot with my wife about it and with my parents, with my brothers, other close people, because I'm just trying to get an understanding from different points of views because I am also in a very special place privately and professionally, and father of two angels (son Stefan and daughter Tara), and time with them is precious,” he said.
Djokovic also wants to establish his own tennis academy and is keen to continue his philanthropic efforts. His advice to children? “Always believe that what you see in your mind can become a reality. And remember why you do something and that first time, for example, a tennis player, why you took the tennis racket in your hand. Is it because you fell in love with the sport, because you just had that emotion … or the spark that motivated you?”
He is keen to help children realize these dreams, via his foundation. “What we need to do is to create conditions around them, and a platform for them to springboard themselves into those dreams, and to really not cloud their imagination,” he told CNBC.
Writer: Lucy Handley
Design and code: Bryn Bache
Editor: Matt Clinch
Presenter and Executive Producer, CNBC Meets: Tania Bryer
Executive Producer, CNBC Meets: Martin Conroy
Series Producer, CNBC Meets: Ged Cleugh
Associate Producer, CNBC Meets: Michelle Blackwell
Images: CNBC, Getty Images and The Novak Djokovic Foundation