As Novak Djokovic battles to win his 21st Grand Slam title at this year’s U.S. Open, he set aside time to discuss the lessons he’s learned over the course of the pandemic. Like anyone, he’s placed a new emphasis on family time and general mindfulness, while also gaining a heightened awareness of inequities within his own community.
“I’ve learned to not rush to conclusions and be overly subjective, to make an effort to switch off and not let collective craze impact my family life, to be flexible and adaptable to constant changes, which takes lots of patience, so I keep exercising that muscle,” said the tennis star.
“I am very fortunate and grateful that throughout this time that I’ve spent playing high level tennis, I’ve managed to financially secure my family so that the pandemic didn’t impact us too much. However, that was not the case with my fellow tennis players. Most of them have given up on tennis as they couldn’t play tournaments and earn their living while things were at standstill during lockdown. I’ve taken time to understand how I can be of service to them from my position of power and influence.
“[Fellow tennis player] Vasek Pospisil and I have founded a Professional Tennis Players Association as a response to the need for players to be heard and seen and earn sustainable livelihoods. We are trying to give back to our tennis community and this is the way to ensure that all players are fairly represented in all matters that involve their health and welfare and affect their ability to compete and make fair wages,” Djokovic said.
In between training and other engagements, Djokovic has found time to moonlight as an accessories designer. He’s designed a limited-edition tote bag in collaboration with Montblanc, marking his record-breaking achievement of spending 311 straight weeks as the world’s number one men’s player. His first collaboration with Montblanc — a take on one of the brand’s famous writing instruments — was released in 2019.
The black tote bag, embroidered with “311” as well as Djokovic’s native Serbian flag, is made from a sustainable nylon thread composed of recycled materials. Only 311 pieces have been produced, and proceeds will benefit the Novak Djokovic Foundation, which provides educational programs to children in Serbia.
Djokovic himself seemed pretty vested in the kinds of bags he uses to tote around his belongings and tennis gear. “I always prefer to carry my own bags. They are loaded with stuff for training and quite heavy. I am growing my awareness about the importance of making sustainable choices in an effort to protect the planet Earth and save it for future generations. So, when I’m choosing a bag, I try to make sure it is made of environmentally friendly materials. I like classic, minimalistic design. Just a simple black bag to carry my book, iPad and diary with me.”
As for his foundation, which these new Montblanc bags benefit, Djokovic shed light on the ongoing projects he and his wife Jelena Djokovic (the foundation’s chief executive officer) have set as short and long-term goals. “We have partnered with the World Bank and Serbian government and within the next two to three years we are supposed to open 100 preschool units. Only this year we opened two kindergartens, and three are pending to be opened this autumn. We have bought necessary equipment for hospitals such as CT scans and respirators, and we’ve also donated masks and sanitary equipment to schools and ambulances.
“This pandemic has brought a lot of stress on our close relationships. We made sure that our program for parents ‘Support not perfection’ is still available to all parents in an online version and through webinars. We made sure to provide them with techniques and tools to manage stress and keep relationships within family as healthy as possible,” he said.
After a prolonged absence, Grand Slam tennis welcomed back spectators to its stands this year. This is particularly important at the U.S. Open, where the roar of the crowd in Arthur Ashe Stadium, the world’s largest tennis venue, is said to help players along in their fights toward victory — especially in the hot and humid conditions that make the U.S. Open a particular physical challenge.
For Djokovic, the shifting guidelines for fans and players has been somewhat of a challenge: “It really isn’t easy on anyone; we are all figuring it out as we go. The mood is shifting all the time. There is always something happening, my mind is always busy with questions and worries, so I make it extra important to make time for silence and mindfulness.
“We all love to have that energy of excitement and support [from spectators] around us. However, I am also training my mind not to get attached too much to that because I can easily go crazy as these things keep changing all the time. Sometimes I am more successful at keeping cool, sometimes less. As I said, it is really not easy for anyone,” he said.
But what does a champion do in New York in his time off? According to Djokovic, they have pastimes like anyone else. “You can see me walking around Central Park barefoot or riding a bike with my family. I just had a wonderful time at a concert in the park. I went there to listen to Zia Victoria Uehling sing, she is a daughter of a very close friend of mine, and I’ve been watching her grow into a wonderful performer. So happy I get to come back to New York and see my friends and be part of their lives too. I celebrated a few trophies with my team in Bar Italia at Madison Avenue, so that’s a must-go to place for us. Brings good luck,” he said.