War, Novak Djokovic once observed, is the worst thing that can happen to anyone.
I sincerely hope he’s not destined to become a male Cassandra, bearing witness to the horror of the inevitable. But it certainly seems that way, doesn’t it?
In recent days, we’ve all been forced to bear witness to the kind of rage, terror and desperation that he no doubt experienced as a child of the Balkan conflict of the 1990s.
The former Yugoslavia at the 20th century’s sunset, New York at the 21st century’s dawn, Nigeria and Ukraine today, Israel and the Palestinian people eternally – the names change, the borders and media circus shift, but the stories are always sickeningly the same. Little boys mangled and murdered by mortar shells. Teenaged ones burned alive or kidnapped, never to return.
And now some 300 souls blown to smithereens on another ill-fated Malaysia Airlines plane, plucked out of the air as it were and scattered in pieces on the ground. And for what? For a scrap of earth that covers us all in the end and the realization that the measure of a man is nothing more than his weight in dust.
“I am totally against any kind of weapon, any kind of air strike,” Nole said when asked about air strikes against Syria last year, just a few days after becoming one of the few athletes to address the United Nations General Assembly. “I am totally against anything that is destructive. Because I had this personal experience, I know it cannot bring any good to anybody.”
Nole – who is of Serbian, Croatian and Montenegrin descent – has chosen to pick up a tennis racket rather than a rifle. The words photographer/filmmaker/musician Gordon Parks once spoke to me continue to apply and haunt: “It’s easier to pick up a paintbrush than a gun.”
“I actually love all the ex-Yugoslav countries, including Croatia, despite the horrible war,” Nole is quoted as saying in Richard Evans’ Newsweek piece. “I am not a person who holds a grudge. I honestly don’t think that we, as countries, have any more reasons to fight.”
It helps when you have a forgiving heart and real talent. But these may not be enough. In my new novel “Water Music,” the tennis prodigy Alí Iskandar is so eager to help his family escape war-torn Iraq that he makes choices that will have profoundly tragic consequences for his life. It’s only later that he understands that try as he might to escape it, war is everywhere. Everywhere is war, because he has internalized it. He comes to know, as do the other heroes of the book, that decisions made in the past – even by people you’ve never met – can have a deep, lasting effect on your present and your future. And that war is the ultimate game men play.
Now this is, of course, fiction, which thrives on conflict. But as you watch Nole struggle from time to time, despite great talent, you realize just how much baggage he, too, has to drag out onto the court, not the least of which is the duffel marked “Serbian role model.” He and new bride Jelena have even been dubbed the “Will and Kate of Serbia.”
And indeed, Nole – subject of Chris Bowers’ forthcoming “The Sporting Statesman: Novak Djokovic and the Rise of Serbia” (John Blake Publishing, Sept. 1) – is the ultimate good-will ambassador for his country through his work for UNICEF, Uniqlo, the Novak Djokovic Foundation and Champions for Peace.
Yet he still has a hard time with loud noises.
So you can’t help but wonder how much peace he has even as he works to bring it to others.