Orthodox Christian Novak Djokovic serves Jesus on and off the tennis court

Australian Open lovers are on the edge of their seats as they wait to see tennis champion Novak Djokovic play this evening in Melbourne. Speculation has been swirling about whether a hamstring injury will keep him off the court.

Of course, the unvaccinated Djokovic didn’t play in the Open last year, after being refused entry to the competition, and indeed to Australia itself, because of Covid regulations.

And so, as the former world number one faces tonight’s game, plagued by injury and controversy, it’s just as well that 35-year-old Djokovic puts his faith in God above tennis.

“Before being an athlete, I am an Orthodox Christian,” said Djokovic in 2011.

Djokovic is a member of the Serbian Orthodox Church. However, after his Round 4 match of the Australian Open in 2009, he discovered the support of the wider Orthodox family, when supporters of Greek Cypriot player Marcos Baghdatis – a Greek Orthodox Christian – chanting his name.

“I have never experienced anything like this before in my life where my opponents team is chanting my name … we are Orthodox brothers,” an emotional Djokovic told Jim Courier in his post-match interview.

“Before being an athlete, I am an Orthodox Christian.” – Novak Djokovic

Observant tennis fans will notice that the player regularly wears a wooden cross around his neck. He’s also known for praying through his matches, as does his wife, Jelena – a practice sports commenters observe with interest:

“He’s praying … his partner’s been praying throughout the night,” said Channel Nine commenter Tony Jones as Djokovic crossed openly prayed and looked heavenward leading up to playing 2019’s championship point

Djokovic occasionally jokes about his devotional practices with comments like how he prays for “plus fours” when he plays the card game Uno, there’s no doubt the player takes his faith very seriously.

In April 2011 he was awarded the highest distinction in the Serbian Orthodox Church – the order of St. Sava – for helping fund renovations to religious buildings in his home of Serbia.

“This award is certainly the most important I’ve ever got,” said Djokovic. “As an athlete and a religious person, it is hard for me to find appropriate words to describe my feelings of gratitude for the confidence I gain from the Holy Synod. I can only say that it can be earned only with hard work and self-belief, belief in your loved ones and in God.”

The Russian Orthodox Church also honoured Djokovic with a 2012 award for “Outstanding Activity in Strengthening Unity of Orthodox Christian Nations and for Consolidation and Promotion of Christian Values in the Life of Society.”

“I think that athletes have huge power to change the world, as Nelson Mandela said, and I think that power can be used in a very positive way.” – Novak Djokovic

But for Djokovic and Jelena, what matters most is using Djokovic’s influence and wealth to benefit those who need it the most – whether that means: rebuilding schools destroyed by natural disaster; donating to save a chapel in France; opening a restaurant with free food for the homeless and those in need; or working through the foundation his family established in 2007, which focuses on early childhood development by providing preschool education for underprivileged Serbian children.

“Right now, Novak has the power and the voice to raise the awareness and raise the funds for investment in preschool education programs and in the future we might not have this power,” Jelena told CNN.

And though Djokovic’s fame comes with the cost of being “on the radar” all the time with social media, Djokovic says this is an opportunity and a privilege, not a burden.

“Everything that you say, that you do, is monitored … big brother,” he said. “Some people may look at that as a burden, but I look at it as a great privilege and actually a great opportunity to use your platform to do something. To create a change that will be positive.

“I think that athletes have huge power to change the world, as Nelson Mandela said, and I think that power can be used in a very positive way.”

This is an updated story from the Eternity archives.