WHAT NOVAK DJOKOVIC TAUGHT ME ABOUT PASTORING
My posthumous mentor, F.W. Boreham, was a first-class pastor and world-class preacher who initially honed his craft on the streets of Clapham, then in the law courts of Dunedin, and then in the theatres of Melbourne! He taught me that a preacher not only can—but should—learn from from highly skilled people who were experts in other fields. While Boreham drew invaluable lessons from the criminal defence lawyers of Dunedin and the stage actors of Melbourne, which he masterfully applied as a preacher with a pulpit and a pen, I have found that elite sportsmen also have much to teach pastors – and perhaps none more than the 2019 Wimbledon champion, Novak Djokovic, who has provided 7 invaluable lessons for me as a pastor.
Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.
Second Timothy 2:15
1. TEACHABILITY, TEACHERS, SEASONS
Novak began playing tennis when he was 4 years old. When he was 6, a former touring player, Jelena Genčić, saw him playing on a court near his parents’ restaurant and remarked that he had great potential. “This is the greatest talent I have seen since Monica Seles” she said. She coached him for the next six years until he was twelve and then realised that in order for him to continue to improve, he needed stiffer competition and more intense coaching.
Jelena organised for him to move to Germany where he joined the Pilić Tennis Academy in Oberschleißheim for the next four years. Djokovic turned professional in 2003. He struggled for the next three years until Marián Vajda became his new coach in 2006. That year, he broke into the ATP Top 40 for the first time. Vajda would go on to help Novak to 12 Grand Slam titles (Australian, French, Wimbledon, US Open) – including the rare feat of holding four slams in the same year (2016, the Nole Slam), until 2016, when Novak appointed Boris Becker as his new head coach.
In 2017, Novak announced that he was appointing André Agassi as his new coach. But this arrangement was interrupted part way through 2017 when Djokovic took time off because an aggravated elbow injury. He came back from his time off in January of 2018 to play the Australian Open but lost in the semi-final. After this defeat he went straight into surgery to have his damaged elbow repaired. He returned to the circuit in March and declared, “After two years finally I can play without pain!” (“Djokovic Monte Carlo 2018” atpworldtour.com. ATP. Retrieved 5 June 2018) He reinstated his old coach Marián Vajda. He came into Wimbledon seeded 12th and made it the semi-final where he played Rafael Nadal (in the second longest match in Wimbledon’s history – 5hrs, 17mins) eventually winning 10-8 in the fifth set. In the final, he played Kevin Anderson, who had just played the longest match in Wimbledon’s history (6hrs, 36mins) in his semi-final; and, won that final in straight sets in 2 hours 18mins. A few months later, in September, he won his third US Open, and then in January of 2019, he won a record 7th Australian Opens. Playing in this year’s French Open at Roland Garros, he played in his semi-final match in what many now regard as the most appalling weather conditions in living memory (except that day 40 years when I was playing in even windier conditions at the Grovedale Tennis Club!). “In the semifinals, he faced 2018 finalist Dominic Thiem, who defeated Djokovic in a four-hour, five-set match that was interrupted by rain multiple times and stretched across two days. This ended his 26-match winning streak in major tournaments and brought his search for a second Nole Slam to an end” (Cambers, Simon (8 June 2019). “Dominic Thiem ends Novak Djokovic’s slam streak to reach French Open final”. The Observer. ISSN 0029-7712. Retrieved 8 June 2019.)
For his 2019 Wimbledon campaign, he supplemented his coaching team with former Wimbledon champion, Goran Ivanisevic (who could only commit to the first week of the two week tournament). He faced Roger Federer in the final – who had two match points on his serve in the fifth set but failed to capitalise on them. Djokovic won the longest Gentleman’s Final (4hours, 57mins) in the history of Wimbledon to defeat Federer in the first ever fifth set tie-breaker played at 12-all, to gain his sixteenth grand slam title.
At each stage of Novak’s career he has continued to strive to improve. Even as world number one for a record 252 consecutive weeks, he is still open to learn. The coaches he has had have added value to his game. As a pastor, there is something for me to learn from this: The right teachers, at the right time, for the right season, can help you to learn, grow, and improve.
¶ When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.
2. THICK SKIN
“It was a huge relief at the end…that was one thing I promised myself coming onto the court today; that I need to stay calm and composed” Djokovic said at the after-match media conference upon winning the 2019 title against Roger Federer. He was asked how he handled the very one-sided crowd during the history-making final, as they chanted, “R O G E R , R O G E R , R O G E R …” To which Novak answered, “Every time I heard them chant, ‘R O G E R…’ in my head, I convinced myself they were chanting “N O V A K , N O V A K…” The journalist responded, “That must require a lot of mental strength? Did you see your mental strength preparation as important as your physical preparation?” To which Novak replied, “Of course!”
But what he didn’t tell them was how his amazing mental strength was developed. He now possesses an ability to focus and stay composed under the most intense pressure from some of the best and meanest players in the history of the game. Rarely has Novak won some of his best finals without being match-points down. Yet, unfazed, he has somehow been able to maintain his composure and pull off what appeared, for all money, to be an impossible victory. When Novak was growing up in Yugoslavia, civil was broke out. When his city was bombed by NATO for 78 consecutive nights in 1999, Novak wrote in his memoir, Serve to Win. “We decided to stop being afraid. After so much death, after so much destruction, we simply stopped hiding. We decided to make fun of how ridiculous our situation was. One friend dyed his hair like a bulls-eye, a target” (Renewal Journal). He learned to block it out and completely ignore it. “We started the war living in fear, but somewhere during the course of the bombings, something changed in me, in my family, in my people” Djokovic wrote.
Young Djokovic himself stumbled and fell while scrambling to a bomb shelter one night. He looked up and saw a fearsome F-117 bomber release its cargo upon a hospital, he said. If you can play tennis while dodging bullets and standing in long lines for bread and milk, then nothing can unnerve you. After facing the hardships of war, the psychological games played by opponents on a tennis court are relatively tame to Djokovic. His inner resolve has resulted in many come from behind victories. His opponents seem befuddled next to his highly-trained concentration level that screens out distractions of any form.
Renewal Journal, “Novak Djokovic – a Christian of deep faith”
As a pastor, there is something for me to learn from this: There many things trying to distract me – critics, opponents, demons – but victory comes from ignoring the distractions while staying on course and remaining focussed.
looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. ¶ Consider Him who endured from sinners such hostility against Himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted.
3. YOU ARE NOT GOING TO WIN EVERY POINT
Novak doesn’t win every point in a match – or even every match he plays. While many other players throw their racquets – or even break their racquets – if they lose a point, Novak’s composure sees him through to the most important point: winning the last point of the match. Even when the odds are against him, the chips are down, and the heat is on – he just keeps trying to get keep the ball in play in the hope that the point’s not over until it’s over.
As a pastor, there is something for me to learn from this: There will be Sundays when I don’t measure up as a preacher, or as a pastor, but my worth is not measured by last Sunday’s performance – it’s measured by how I persist and complete my mission.
¶ “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.”
4. IMPROVING MEANS CONSTANT CHANGE
God will give ear and humble them,
He who is enthroned from of old, Selah
because they do not change
and do not fear God.
I remember when Novak changed his racquet from Wilson to Head and initially didn’t play as well as he did when he used his old racquet. He was sharply criticised by commentators at the time. But over time, he proved his critics wrong as he melded his game with his new custom racquet from Head and began winning matches he was previously losing. I also remember when he changed his service action (presumably because of his injured elbow), which was a courageous thing to do, and eventually led to current service action (which isn’t the fastest on the Tour, but is one of the most difficult to read for opponents).
He was forever battling with allergies which affected his breathing, and then radically changed his diet when it was discovered that he was gluten-intolerant. In more recent times, he has radically changed his diet again by becoming a vegan (as my daughter Ebony told me about a million times during his 2019 SW14 campaign!).
As a pastor, there is something for me to learn from this: Constant improvement must be intentional and will always mean constant and deliberate change which will involve experimenting and refining.
Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into Him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.
5. EVERY VICTORY MAKES SENSE OF ALL THE HARD WORK
At the after-match media conference to his his 2019 Wimbledon final, Novak stated that such victories as he had just had over Federer provided ‘sense to all the hard work and sacrifices you make to get here.’ Few people understand the rigour involved in becoming and being an elite athlete. Tennis is not a timed game like a football match is. Each match could be over in under 90 minutes, or, as was the time when Novak played Nadal in the 2012 Australian Open Final, last for 5 hours 53 minutes (the longest Grand Slam final match ever played)! In André Agassi’s book, Open, he tells of his second last match in his career at the 2006 US Open when he played a marathon 5 set match, which he eventually won, against Marcos Baghdatis. After the match, when players were helped to the locker room, their bodies were cramping and exhausted. In the next round, Agassi was physically spent and lost to a young German player. To win a Grand Slam title sometimes requires playing 7 of these length matches in a row! The physical conditioning required to do this is intense and requires years of preparation, dedication, and sacrifice. But victory is its own reward. The sacrifices a pastor has to make to fulfil their duty is made worth it when people come to know Christ and discover that they need a Saviour and that Jesus the Christ is that Saviour.
As a pastor, there is something for me to learn from this: Dedication to the craft of preaching and pastoring requires rigorous commitment to study, prepare, pray, learn, think, practice, train, to spiritually and physically and mentally be prepared for the enormous responsibility it demands to shepherd people souls.
Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one—I am talking like a madman—with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure.
Second Corinthians 11:23-27
6. KEEP BELIEVING
There are some prayers that God will always refuse to grant! These are the prayers that ask God to bless our disobedience or deliberate laziness. After all, who wants to study for an exam? Wouldn’t it be easier if God could just supernaturally give us the answers during the exam??? Who wants to get up at 4:30AM to go for their daily 10km jog? Who wants to go to the gym to do daily resistance or cardio training for three hours? Who wants get on a tennis court in the dead winter which is covered in black ice to throw and catch a 15kg medicine ball for an hour before the sun comes up? When you believe that God has you on this planet for a purpose, you do something about it.
“I just try to never lose self-belief, just stay calm, just focus on trying to get the ball back, return, which wasn’t serving me very well today.”
-Novak Djokovic, 14 July 2019
When Novak was playing with pain from his damaged elbow, he tried to ignore it. Jelena, his wife, said at the presentation of Laureus International Sports Person of The Year Award to Novak, that he began taking pain-killers just to get on the tennis court, but eventually conceded that he needed surgery. “This”, she said, “went against everything he believed in the core of his being. It was against his values.” But because he believed God has put him on this earth to play tennis for His glory, Novak was prepared to face reality and accept the truth.
As a pastor, there is something for me to learn from this: There are certain uncomfortable realities about accepting the truth and accepting that this requires something of me if I truly believe that God has called me to pastor and preach. Sometimes this means that God will have to do spiritual surgery on my character in order for me to become who He has called me to be, and to do what He has called me to do.
For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.
7. MY IDENTITY AND WORTH
Novak Djokovic is not a tennis player. He’s someone who plays tennis professionally. His identity, by his own admission, is as someone who has been created by God and put on this planet for a higher purpose than to win tennis matches and make millions of dollars. At the end of each of his matches, he pauses on the court, looks up, and points a finger to the One who gets all the glory.
He describes this divine call whenever he reminds people that before he is a tennis player, he is husband and a father. Upon receiving The Order of St. Sava in the First Degree from Irenaeus (the Patriarch of the Serbian Orthodox Church) in 2011, the highest honour bestowed by the Serbian Orthodox Church, he said, “This is the most important title of my life, because before being an athlete, I am an Orthodox Christian.” It was given to him especially for having contributed financially to the renovation of Orthodox monasteries and churches in Serbia.
Novak is married to Jelena. The couple met when they were 15 years old. They now have two children, a boy and girl. He often tells other players on the circuit that they should try marriage rather than waiting too long. After his elbow surgery, he was frustrated with his slow progress in returning to form on the tennis court. He wondered whether he should retire. After all, he had already won over $100,000,000 in prize money alone, let alone the additional millions from endorsements. He certainly didn’t need the money! He rang Jelena after losing another of his come-back matches to say that he was considering retiring because it was just too difficult to find the form he once had. She encouraged him to hang in there. He responded, “I can’t do this without you. If I’m going to do this, I want you there!” The rest is history.
Together, they also oversee a Novak Djokovic Foundation which provides for under-privileged children in Serbia. He is also the benefactor to a child care facility in Melbourne, Australia. They have established a restaurant in Serbia which offers meals to those who can’t afford one.
As a pastor, there is something for me to learn from this: Before I am a pastor and preacher, I am a husband and a father, who has been placed on this planet to give God the glory. My worth and identity is not in the acclaim of the crowd, but in the One who made me.
These 7 things are what Novak Djokovic has taught me about pastoring!
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