Joanita Wibowo

Novak Djokovic recalls harrowing childhood: "I didn’t stop shivering for the rest of the night"

Novak Djokovic recalls harrowing childhood: "I didn’t stop shivering for the rest of the night"

Novak Djokovic has maintained his position as the world’s number one tennis player as he defeated longtime rival Rafael Nadal at the Australian Open on Sunday to earn his 15th Grand Slam title, and the seventh time winning the trophy for the major Aussie tennis tournament.  

While the decorated athlete enjoys glory and recognition these days, not a lot of people know that he has come from a childhood filled with wars and bombings.

Djokovic was a 12-year-old tennis prodigy when the NATO bombing campaign began in his hometown, Belgrade following the break-up of Yugoslavia. He and his family spent many nights in fear as explosions disrupted their sleep. 

“We were waking up every single night more or less at 2, 3am for two-and-a half months,” he recalled to Bob Simon on 60 Minutes.

The tennis champ also recalled his 12th birthday, when the drone of low-flying bombs drowned out renditions of the “Happy Birthday” song.

In his book Serve To Win, Djokovic also recounted a night where his family fled from their apartment to seek shelter from a bombing raid.

“From behind I heard something tearing open the sky, as though an enormous snow shovel were scraping ice off the clouds,” he wrote.

“Still sprawled on the ground, I turned and looked back at our home. Rising up from over the roof of our building came the steel gray triangle of an F-117 bomber. I watched in horror as its great metal belly opened directly above me, and two laser-guided missiles dropped out of it, taking aim at my family, my friends, my neighborhood – everything I’d ever known … I didn’t stop shivering for the rest of the night.”

Due to the war, Djokovic did not need to go to school and practiced more tennis. In an interview with The Telegraph, Djokovic said he sometimes had to hide in a bomb shelter mid-practice when interruptions occurred.

He said growing up and training in such an environment was a formative experience for him and his family. 

“[The war] made us tougher,” Djokovic said. “It made us more hungry, more hungry for the success.”

Today, the 31-year-old is a hero to Serbians.

His company, the Novak Djokovic Foundation, is now working on early childhood development and education to improve the lives of young children, including ones facing poverty and violence.

“Growing up in a war-torn country is not easy on anyone, most of all the children,” Djokovic told BBC.

“Living with that kind of fear is detrimental for any child’s development. And knowing personally how that feels, I promised myself years ago that if I could, I would do anything to help these children. I hope the research in this area will help minimise the trauma these children feel so that they too can grow up mentally strong and healthy individuals.”