by Sonja Nikcevic
Novak Djokovic has always been more than just a Serbian tennis player. In his ascent towards immortality in the sport, Djokovic’s image and open, friendly manner became a symbol for a new kind of Serbia. It was the symbol of a country that had shed its image of conflict and poverty and replaced it with one of a prosperous future of talented, intelligent youth. Along with his compatriots in the sport, ‘Nole’ became the goodwill ambassador the country was in dire need of.
Now, years after the Serb had established himself as both a tennis great and national symbol, his country found itself in dire need yet again. And Djokovic stepped up. Yet again.
In the past week, the Balkans have been hit with the worst flooding ever documented in the region, with Serbia and Bosnia being the areas affected most. In Serbia alone, entire cities and towns were threatened to be completely swallowed up from the swelling of the River Sava caused by days of torrential rain, and more than 20 000 people had to be evacuated from their homes.
Amidst the state of emergency, the official death toll rose to 44, and more than tens of thousands of volunteers throughout the country joined forces to help gather donations of food, water and clothing and help evacuated families.
All the while, Novak Djokovic was competing in the ATP Master’s tournament in Rome. The World No. 2 came back from behind to win the tournament, despite his expressed desperation at not being in Serbia helping those in need.
As he raised his third Rome Master’s trophy, Djokovic did what both the Serbian government and the international media had failed to do – raise awareness on an issue that was starkly and shockingly underreported in the international media.
Novak criticized BBC, CNN and others for overlooking the region and its tragic battle with flooding and called on his fans and colleagues around the world for support.
Since the final on Sunday, the change in international coverage and amount of relief pouring into the country has been astounding. Having been shown the error of their ways by none other than an athlete, BBC and Sky News organized exclusive interviews with Djokovic that were broadcast live.
Sparked by his words, and by those of other Serbian athletes, sports figures and athletes around the world showed their solidarity through donations and calls for support though the ever-potent social media. Djokovic’s donation of his full prize money from Rome was just a bonus.
Through his foundation, Novak has raised more then $600,000 for victim relief and continued the battle for awareness at Tuesday night’s charity football match in Monaco ahead of the F1 Grand Prix.
As the state of emergency continues in Serbia and neighboring regions continues, the power of national and citizen solidarity has shown through. And with it, so has the power of sport.
To donate for the relief of flood victims and the rebuilding of schools in Serbia through the Novak Djokovic Foundation, click here.