It was the year of 1993. In the United Kingdom, American tennis player Pete Sampras won Wimbledon for the first time, becoming a remarkable name in the history of world tennis. Still in Europe, but a little distant from London, a six-year-old boy felt an uncontrollable emotion while watching on TV the images of Sampras’ unforgettable victory.
The scene took place on the mountains in the South of Serbia, in a small town named Kopaonik. The young boy had just started playing tennis and kept in mind the memories of the inspiring shots he watched on TV that day. The child was Novak Djokovic and at that moment he knew exactly what he wanted to do for the rest of his life.
The practicing routine took its course but it didn’t seem to be a problem once Novak kept falling for the sport day after day, match after match. Back then, there weren’t any sport traditions in Djokovic’s family; neither there were people interested in tennis. Nevertheless, the boy would insist on his future dreams with extreme dedication. He wanted to become as great as his idol Pete Sampras.
BOLDNESS AND DREAMS
The path of one of the greatest tennis players in activity was built out of resilience, strength and willpower. Nole, as he’s widely known, was born in 1987 in Belgrade, Serbia – former Yugoslavia.
The war and serious political problems that affected his country were part of the athlete’s childhood. Djokovic usually talks about some of the dark moments he went through in that period, such as the time he had to be stuck in a basement during some of the bombings that destroyed the city. He also tells how the court where he used to play is now marked by bullet holes on the walls. However, when he thinks of his childhood, Nole recognizes that the hard times and the war made him even stronger.
In the beginning of his teenage years, the severe situation in Belgrade forced him to leave his country in order to keep searching for his dream. As soon as he started to show his outstanding skills, he moved to Germany and by the age of 12 he was in Munich working hard to be a unique tennis player.
A METEORIC RISE
It didn’t take a lot of time for Djokovic’s significant victories. In 2006, at 19, he won his first ATP title. The following year, he was already amongst the top ten tennis players of the world and in 2008, he was definitely recognized as one of the greatest athletes of current times.
By the way, it was in that same year that Nole became the youngest tennis player in history to reach the semi-finals in all four Grand Slam events. And after beating Federer and Tsonga, he started 2008 as the champion of the Australian Open. By the end of the year, he would still win the title of the Masters Cup.
In 2009 he reached ten finals and won five titles. It was the moment to guarantee his name in the “Big Four” – group formed by the great players Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray and now Djokovic. Together, these four athletes have dominated tennis for the last decade.
REACHING THE TOP AND KEEPING THINGS COOL
Djokovic is currently the number one tennis player of the world and that condition has been confirmed since 2011. Even though Nadal and Federer have also reached the position, it’s the Serbian athlete who has dominated that status since then.
In 2011, he won three out of the four Grand Slam events. Besides that, he was the champion of five Masters 1000. Pete Sampras, his biggest inspiration, has stated that Djokovic’s 2011 season was the best one he had ever seen so far. But Nole would do even better in 2015. That year, he won 3 Grand Slam titles again and six more Masters, reaching the record score on the ATP ranking.
So far, Djokovic has won the Australian Open seven times (he’s the biggest winner of the tournament), Wimbledon four times, the U.S. Open three times and one French Open. That makes a total of 15 titles of Grand Slam tournaments in his career. Nole has surpassed his idol Pete Sampras, who has won 14 titles. He hasn’t reached Nadal (17 titles) and Federer (20 titles) though.
TALENT AND PHILANTHROPY
Novak Djokovic is one of the most admired and respected sportspeople of the world and that’s not only because of his incredible talent on the courts. Nole is also a very extroverted guy and his jokes have become part of his show. He has pretended to be a doctor, has fried an egg on the court of Australian Open and has danced with lots of fans during some promotional events. Not to mention his famous impersonations! Maria Sharapova, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer have been “recreated” by the Serbian athlete.
For the last ten years, the famous tennis player – and wife Jelena – has taken part of his time to dedicate to philanthropic works, focused on young children development. The Novak Djokovic Foundation values that investing in early childhood education is much more important than investing in a future rehabilitation process. We had the opportunity to talk to Jelena Djokovic, Co-founder and Global CEO of Novak Djokovic Foundation.
We understand that child development is a great part of what you do, through projects stimulating education and sporting activities, but also by creating infrastructure for those children to have the means to achieve maximum potential. Why is it so important to focus on young children? Do you consider this line of intervention as the Foundation’s main mission?
The Foundation is involved in promoting the virtues of supporting early childhood education and development globally through its partnership with the World Bank and Novak Djokovic’s role as the UNICEF Global Ambassador. We have chosen to address an issue that not many NGOs focus on, because it takes many years to see the tangible results. Nevertheless, our upbringing keeps steadfast on our mission as we strongly believe that with the right care, support, and education, any child can become a winner regardless of the chosen discipline. And that’s why, even when instant gratification is not an option, we always insist on investing in Early Childhood Development (ECD).
Our projects are currently focused mainly in Serbia, with some of the work being carried out internationally, such as in North America and Australia. For example, in 2016, the Foundation donated U$20,000 to the Centro Mater Child Care Center in Miami and the same amount was donated to the Melbourne City Mission for its work with some of Melbourne’s most disadvantaged children.
Was disaster relief part of the initial idea behind the foundation?
No, not really. The initial idea behind the creation of the Fund was just to help. Novak, after seeing and witnessing the sufferings of people in his own country, wanted to do something to alleviate their problems.
With the help of his parents, he funded the Novak Fund in 2007. The Fund carried out various initiatives with this goal in mind, but Novak and his parents came to understanding that this kind of help was hard to measure and even harder to track. They realized that if they really wanted to make a lasting change, they needed a much stronger focus and a clear mission.
And so in 2012, Novak and I – back then I was his girlfriend – restructured and re-branded Novak Fund into what we know today as the Novak Djokovic Foundation, which focus is on early childhood development.
Could you tell us about the details on where and when the idea to start a foundation came from?
A significant milestone that prompted the creation of the Foundation took place in 2012, after our country faced the worrying statistics (provided by UNICEF) that showed that half of children in Serbia do not attend any pre-school programs.
Low pre-school participation rates such as these are very worrying for the future of any society because studies show that children who do not attend pre-school face higher chances of dropping out of school, living lives of poverty and crime and would have to be rehabilitated into society.
This topic is very personal to us because, above everything else, we believe in prevention through investing in early years programs rather than later rehabilitation of these children. We were both very lucky that we grew up in families that nurtured education and understood the value of early childhood development. So, it was only natural that we’d do the same through the work of our Foundation. And to do that, we gathered a team of truly passionate people who believe that every child should have a chance to grow up in a nurturing and loving environment where they would be able to thrive and flourish.
How many kids / people do you estimate were affected by the Foundation so far?
After 12 years spent in serving our community, we can proudly announce that behind our work there are 43 kindergartens opened all over Serbia, more than 22,000 children touched by our programs, 1,575 professionally trained teachers and facilitators, several thousand parents, and tens of programs implemented by the Foundation.
To further our mission, we are cooperating with the University Harvard’s Center on Developing Child, World Bank, the German Chamber of Commerce and hundreds of companies from our country and the world, which have recognized our efforts to improve the starting positions for children.
Recently, prestigious magazine in Serbia ”Diplomacy and Commerce” has awarded Novak Djokovic with the award for the humanitarian of the year and the Foundation as the Foundation of the year, which is a significant confirmation that our work is well recognized.
We would also like to mention that we have developed special programs with a mission to support parents in their most important role of their lives. Our Program ”Support, Not Perfection” has been carried out during the last two and a half years, led by the professional psychologist and educational expert Mrs. Smiljana Grujic. So far more than 800 parents have participated in the workshops that are part of the program and have gained valuable skills to make their relationship with children and their role as parents much better – or as we like to say it, we empowered parents to give their children ”roots to grow and wings to fly”.
What are the biggest challenges in running a foundation? Is it difficult to find or keep the partners close and to keep gathering the donations / funds to make the projects happen?
There are obviously many challenges in running any charity, but we are grateful to have had wonderful partners over the years who made our work really rewarding. Thanks to the great cooperation we nurtured with all of them over the years, we realized that it’s much less stress for all of us when we support each other in everything, since the biggest challenge for all of us are changing laws and regulations. Those complicate our work and sometimes make us have to start again but if there is understanding on all sides, there is really nothing that challenging that work will suffer.
Since our Foundation only invests in sustainable programs, our partners are local authorities on whom we lean on for all necessary procedures, permits and building sites, and local preschool institutions, who are left in charge of running preschools on our behalf.
Have you ever suffered any kind of government / institution intervention that made you have to take a step back and go through bureaucratic issues to make your final mission happen?
Thankfully, we haven’t had any negative experiences so far. We are immensely grateful that we have many partners who live and share our vision, who believe in a world where every child has an equal chance to grow into a caring and productive member of society! When you have people believing in the same thing, it is greatly rewarding to do the work you do.
We have a solid base of donors who support our work, not only through financial aid, but also through in-kind donations or services. Our work is a two-way street, that is why we strive to thank our benefactors for their support in the best possible way. We give our donors integrity, transparency, and they are always happy to know exactly where their money goes and what kind of support was provided to children.
We’d love to hear anything interesting, innovative, or curious that people don’t usually associate with running a foundation.
Our Foundation’s dream is to help transform the world into a place where every human has a chance to live their success story. To do that, we knew that investing only in school builds, teacher training and parent support would not be enough. To create meaningful programs and to really help children, teachers and caretakers alike, we needed to draw from some body of knowledge. Unfortunately, to this day, there is just not enough research done on the topic of early years and their importance.
With that in mind, in 2015, we formed partnership with Harvard University’s Center on Developing Child, thus founding the Djokovic Science and Innovation Fellowship. Each year, four advanced doctoral students are hand selected by Prof. Dr Jack Shonkoff and his team to carry out research related to early childhood health, learning, and behavior. We hope that the results of their research will help change perspectives of the world policy makers and early childhood development professionals and motivate them to create laws and policies that will work in favor of children.
We have also formed partnership with the Faculty of Philosophy – Department of Pedagogy and Andragogy at the University of Belgrade, where we provide two full scholarships to the newly enrolled PhD students. This initiative is called Djokovic Scholars and is designed to build academic and research leaders in the field of early childhood education and development, who will be key actors in exploring, informing and advocating for quality preschool education policies and practices in Serbia.
More informations: https://novakdjokovicfoundation.org/