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Novak plays tennis naked by faith

What drives the world No. 1 and Australian Open winner?

Tennis and Christianity played side by side during the Australian Open – for better and worse.

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As the world’s number one male tennis player Novak Djokovic claimed his seventh Australian Open title on Sunday night, you might have noticed his trademark gesture towards the heavens. And then there is his choice of jewellery – a simple wooden cross necklace.

“He’s the most humble sportsman I’ve ever met.” – Boris Becker

As religious publication Aleteia reported ahead of his crushing win against Rafael Nadal in Melbourne, Djokovic previously admitted that “before being an athlete, I am an Orthodox Christian.”

Also at the Australian Open this year, tennis legend and self-confessed Christian Margaret Court came under fire for comments she made in 2017 about same-sex marriage. In response, Anna Wintour – the editor-in-chief of US Vogue magazine – called for Margaret Court Arena to be renamed (during Wintour’s address at an Australian Open event).

Openly professing Christian faith in the public eye can put players – and other people – into confronting and highly scrutinised territory.

In the case of Djokovic, he has been criticised for his arrogant behaviour on court, such as chest-beating, riling the crowd.

Former coach Boris Becker admitted that “Novak comes across on the court as pretty emotional. Sometimes, to the point of arrogance.” But Becker stressed that “he’s the opposite in his private life. He’s the most humble sportsman I’ve ever met. He’s very thoughtful …”

Djokovic’s character (and his game) have endured harsh criticism. In the Nadal/Roger Federer era, he had to grow into his game through illness and injury, as well as try to find a way into the hearts of tennis lovers besotted with the other two greats.

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

According to Aleteia, Djokovic’s religious beliefs are more important to him than tennis. In light of Djokovic being off the professional circuit for six months before the Australian Open due to an elbow injury, Aleteia alleged it was a “safe bet” that he “was able to find the energy he needed for his comeback thanks to his regular Bible reading.”

Aleteia also reports that in 2011, Djokovic was awarded the order of Saint Sava – the highest distinction in the Serbian Orthodox Church. He received the honour for helping to fund the renovation of religious buildings in his homeland, Serbia. As he received the order of Saint Sava, he said: “This is the most important title of my life, because before being an athlete, I am an Orthodox Christian.”

Djokovic described himself in a slightly different way to The Guardian in 2014, where being an “orthodox Christian” was about being “less a religious person than a person of faith.”

Aleteia points to Djokovic’s substantial philanthropic work as evidence of his Christian faith in practice: “[Djokovic] willingly puts his fortune at the service of the underprivileged and helps causes that are dear to him.” Through the Novak Djokovic Foundation, he has helped build schools in Serbia and opened a restaurant offering free food to the country’s homeless and the poor. In 2015, Djokovic was named UNICEF’s Goodwill Ambassador to Serbia.

“The tennis court is a place where I’m naked … where I have the opportunity to learn about myself.” – Novak Djokovic

In his book Serve to Win, Djokovic shared the impact an Orthodox priest had upon his outlook on life: “It’s important to be humble, and important to be very open-minded toward all the people in the world. It doesn’t matter who it is, really, or how much amount of success that person has made, because you don’t measure the person through the success the person has made, but through his behaviour … So that’s what I try to implement in my life.”

It’s inevitable that Djokovic, now 31, will continue to act in ways that cause people to question his faith. This can be true for any Christian, but particularly for a champion of his calibre, where passion and ambition are necessary drivers.

But it seems Djokovic is willing to suffer the consequences of transparency. He expressed this well after his recent Australian Open victory: “The tennis court is a place where I’m naked, where I’m exposed to both extremes in terms of emotions and character.

“That’s where I have the opportunity to learn about myself. The hunger is always there.”

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