Novak Djokovic knows firshand that a tough match is not a war

Novak Djokovic reacts during his men's singles final

Novak Djokovic reacts during his men's singles final match against Rafael Nadal at the 2013 U.S. Open. (Sept. 9, 2013) (Credit: Getty)

John Jeansonne

Newsday columnist John Jeansonne. John Jeansonne

Jeansonne has been a reporter in Newsday’s sports department since

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In the ultimately insignificant world of tennis, Novak Djokovic's runner-up finish to Rafael Nadal in Monday night's U.S. Open was good enough to reinforce his status as a sports hero.

Still only 26, Djokovic has won six major-tournament titles and been runner-up six times, putting himself firmly in the company of his generation's best players.

But if anyone understands that this is not war and peace, that the Open is a 15-day bubble of fun and games (and commerce), protected from the Real World without the need of that much-anticipated Arthur Ashe Stadium roof, it is Djokovic.

He was a 12-year-old lad in Belgrade in 1999 when NATO bombs began falling in the former Yugoslavia during the Kosovo War's military operations. "Those particular times that me and my fellow countrymen and colleagues from Serbia have been through," he said last week, "is a period of life we don't wish anybody to experience.

"The war is the worst thing in life for humanity. Nobody really wins."

He had been asked about the agonizing discussion over a possible military strike in Syria and declared himself "totally against any kind of weapon, any kind of air strike. I'm totally against anything that is destructive, because I had this personal experience."

He was not trying to make a political statement. He considered that his ringside seat to war might have "helped us appreciate all the life values and everything that has been given to us," without trying to compare the fortitude of fighting off a break point to the risk and sacrifice of people caught in armed battle.

Still, the cases of sport's cheating dopers aside, retired Norwegian speedskating champion Johann Olav Koss has argued that sports stars indeed are heroes, in the sense of guiding and inspiring others. A multiple Olympic gold medalist in the 1990s, Koss-now based in Canada and CEO of the humanitarian organization Right to Play-for decades has provided sports equipment to children in war-torn countries.

"How important is this?" Koss said early in his work. "Even in the cruelty, this is so important."

During Eritrea's bloody independence fight with Ethiopia, Koss had witnessed 10-year-olds admiring posters of dead soldiers and wondered, "What kind of heroes do we want?"

His answer was that "I want it to be athletes as opposed to soldiers."

Djokovic, four days before his first match in this year's Open, was invited to address the United Nation's General Assembly on the occasion of proclaiming an International Day of Sport and Development and Peace.

"I hope this international day will motivate each of us to invest in additional efforts in cultivating the intrinsic sporting values such as fair play, teamwork and respect for the opponent," he said then. "When we encourage kids to dream big and work hard, we can make a tangible difference . . . "

Djokovic last week recalled spending "basically every day for two months on the tennis courts with the planes flying over our heads" in the spring of 1999, yet "looking on the bright side.

"We were kids. We were only 12 years old," he said. "We thought, 'OK, now we're not obliged to go to school, we can play more tennis.' We just let the life decide for us. It was not in our control."

Meanwhile, Djokovic's inspiration, then his hero, he told the UN group, was just a tennis player. Pete Sampras.