Jelena Ristic, the bright side of Serbia

What it looks like when Novak Djokovic cheers for you during an exam? How they supported each other during the eight years of relationship? How freindships, like the one with Robert de Niro, aid in humanitarian endevours? We also discussed with Jelena Ristic how her and Novak strive to bring good news to front pages in Serbia and how her grandma celebrated every good grade she ever got in school. All this, and so much more, in the following interview...

Conversation with Jelena Ristić, girlfriend of Novak Djoković and chairwoman of the fondation that bears his name, started aptly in Belgrade's Dom Omladine. Reason behind the choice of venue is rather simple - New years's celebration with children from foster families.

Public knows very little about Jelena Ristić, even though she gained a lot of public's affection due to the fact that she is an integral part of every success of Novak Djokovic.

"I never felt the need to breach the framework of my natural role, and that is Novak's girlfriend. I really enjoy my life and don't feel compelled to boast about it, regardless how happy I might be. I take advantage of my situation to help others. We have so much more opportunities than many others in Serbia today, and we use those opportunities in this fashion", began Jelena Ristic her story.

Aforementioned event is just one out of myriad currently keeping busy "Novak Djokovic Foundation". At first, it was rather difficult to persuade people from abroad to help children in, for many, obscure country like Serbia.

"It was hard initially, but given in mind that we have such a diligent ambassador like Novak, it is much easier for us than it is for foundations of similar sort. He, with his on and off the court demeanor, spurs people to leave behind their comfort zone and help those in need. Because of that, people, mainly from the U.S, are very generous when it comes to donating", added Jelena Ristic.

When one country goes through so much hardship like Serbia did in its immediate past, it's often hard to decide where is help needed the most. But, for Jelena and Novak, dilemma what to make the object of their endevours was ephemeral, or even nonexistent.

"People seldom place focus on children, because the results with them are not palpable that very instant. We are striving to enhance education, conditions and circumstances in families and society for the children. We are more than ready to wait a decade even, if that is what it takes. Number of children in Serbia is dwindling rapidly. We have started to die out as a nation. These children will inherit this society in 30 years, and they will make up the Serbia that we all want and wait for".

First prerequisite to help other families is to be a part of a happy family yourself. Jelena's upbringing was precisely that.

"My parents are my two angels. They have given me wings to soar, which was extremely difficuilt in times of war and economical and political turmoil. There is also my sister. My whole family is my support, and those are the expiriences that I would like for other kids to share".

Speaking of happy childhood, when she was younger, she asked the Santa Claus for only one thing.

"Highest grades. I was a bit of a nerd you know. From the youngest age we contemplated, by we I mean my parents and I, going to university abroad. That entailed me being the very best student in elementary and high school, in order to contribute with scholarship. My parents were in no position financially to fund education of her daughters in a foreign country".

Serbia is a country in which front pages are contaminated by bad news. People accept that like something that is inevitable and immutable. For that reason the story of her using public transportation in Belgrade, and subsequently sharing pleasant experiences with her fans and followers via social media, made such an impact.

"We are almost trained to neglect and overlook the good things, and to focus only on the bad ones. We turn pages to scandal and gossip, and shun all the nice and positive things that could be like a light in a tunnel for us, so to speak. Me taking a trolley is not a big deal per se, but I'm glad that it succeded to avert peoples gaze from stuff like car crushes, physical or verbal confrontations and so on. We have shut our eyes in the presence of good things, that are ubiquitous around us. My mission is to encourage people to look more towards the positive aspect of life".

The conversation resumed in Ljig. In "Little School of Life", which was build with the help of "Novak Djokovic Foundation" in the neighbourhood of Kadina Luka, Jelena Ristic talked about growing up in Belgrade during the infamous last decade of the 20th century. More specifically, she, somewhat reluctantly, divulged traumatic incident when local thugs robbed her of her shoes on the street.

"I walked barefoot back home. Actually, the boy I liked at the time gave me a piggyback, just so I want get dirty. It was in Dorcol, where I was spending my summer break. I never understood why they did that. Maybe they wanted to show off their superiority, or maybe they just needed the shoes that badly", she said with an almost inaudible laughter.

The time came, first for her elder sister and than for herself as well, to leave family home and set out to universities abroad. The act of separation was hard for all family members, but no one experienced it as emotionally as her mother did.

"For my mother it was an immense shock. To this day, she never comes with us to the airports when we are departing. She greets us upon arrival, of course. That's how hard that is for her".

In order to alleviate her parents financial burden, Jelena worked while attended university in Italy.

"I did all sort of things. I found no job too demanding or demeaning. I even worked at local bookmaker. There, it was almost impossible for me to cope with abundant tobacco smoke (laughter). I worked at the bar and people there tend to give me tips if their teams won or something. That was rather fun".

Along with her school accomplishments, Novak Djoković excelled at the tennis court.

"Novak and I have made balance in our relationship. Each weekend he made some sort of progress in his career, and, due to mere duration of higher education, I felt like I was lagging behind. Because of that, we turned my every exam into a Grand slam. We have always respected each other and never belittled our individual ambitions".

Aspiring tennis player and not so affluent student from Serbia had a very hard time coming up with ways to actually see each other.

"Us getting together was like science fiction almost. I was a student barely getting by, and he was a very young tennis player who also had no money to spare on expensive trips. Airplanes were, at the time, something utterly out of our reach. We contrived and devised these plans how to meet, how to make our relationship work. Novak even made it to one of my more important exams. He sat in the back row while I was in the front. Professor allowed him to do so. He was unknown at the time. He always backed me up, just like I support him now on his tournaments".

When Jelena graduated, her and Novak opted for a life together, i.e. they decided to start living together. As is common with any milestone, they initially faced certain predicaments.

"After three years of dating, we came to a turning point. We decided to live together. It's not easy to find a job in Monaco. I was lucky enough to get a job in an oil company. I worked there for about a year, until it proved to be something of a mission impossible for our relationship. At certain point, Novak told me: 'Darling, we cannot go on like this'. While I was in school, I had very specific time periods that I was available to dedicate entirely to him. Now, at this job, I was confined to the office almost at all times. It wouldn't have been possible for our relationship to thrive if I had stayed there. So, we sought different alternatives".

So, one may deduce that life of an athlete's girlfriend, especially one so successful and accomplished as Novak Djoković, demands a lot of renouncement.

„Every girlfriend of an athlete must be ready to compromise. Their careers are short. At the age of 35, people are deemed young. Athletes are old. When their careers come to an end, then it is our time. Until that point, man is the one in charge. Their vocation demands ton of support, just so they can walk into the court free of any concern, love related or otherwise".

There were a lot of media buzz regarding charity dinners and fundraising events in New York and London organized by the "Novak Djoković Foundation". One might say that regular people fail to realize just how hard it is to raise up to two million dollars. It's even more difficult to gather "hot shots" from around the globe and convince them that helping some school in Ljig or Knić is exactly what they should be doing at that point.

„We glean money by selling tickets, by donations and through sponsorships. Milutin Gatsby was the one who suggested this strategy to us, he is the one with a lot of experience and expertise in this field. That made this school possible, and that will make the next ten school possible. And, not only did we do well at the fundraising dinners, we managed to win over the people there, so they will continue to help our cause".

At these events, guests are presented with countless items for them to bid on. As they like to put it, one can get almost everything at Novak Djoković events.

"All those millionaires toiled to earn that money, and they don't give it away lightly. You have to be a master salesman to entice them to spend. We present them with various art work, exotic travels, jewelry, many different experiences and interactions with celebrities, and that is not easy to procure. There are so many obstacles making fundraising tricky. Even when we announce that certain amount of money was gathered, we are still a long way from actually acquiring the money. Money is not given to us that very night, we actually have to call and remind people about the commitment they pledged to".

How do you even persuade all those A list people to show up at your event?

"With the help of Milutin Gatsby. With the help of common friends. We had Richard Branson at our event, Anna Wintour, Boris Becker was there. There was always shared and reciprocated respect between us and Boris Becker, who is a known humanitarian. As for his and Novak's newly established business relationship, it's not up to me to speak about it. Also, Robert de Niro and his wife Grace are our old and dear friends, and they have supported us with all their heart. Novak gained love and respect from people around the globe, so when they hear his name associated with this foundation, they rush to aid us".

It is no surprise that one hour tennis session with Novak Djoković is the most sought after auction item.

„They really love tennis in the United States. And, for a common fan there, it's an utmost pleasure to have an opportunity to play with Novak Djokovic, the world number one tennis player. Those few most enthusiastic, even before the bidding starts, tend to say stuff like 'I'm prepared to spend 200.000 dollars to play with Djokovic at my estate. Even 300.000 dollars'. Unfortunately, that is not feasible and they need to adjust themselves to Novak's earlier established schedule. We don't have room for more than two matches a year. It's arduous thing to put everything together, that's for sure".

"Little School of Life" in Ljig and handing out Christmas presents to children in need are what is commonly referred to as "the good news". One thing that bothers Novak and Jelena the most is the fact that, in Serbia, bad news tend to steal the spotlight. Their aim is to change that.

"We can do it, if we work together and in good faith. We need to always point out how important it is for people to shift their focus from awful things to those nice occurrences that surround us. When we do that, ordinary people will strive to emulate those patterns, and they will improve their and life of those around him".

Hard labour and maximum exertion is what enabled Jelena Ristic and Novak Djokovic to relish high standard of living. That didn't prevent Jelena from spending portion of her leisure time with children that enjoy all the benefits of her hard work.

"Nothing fell from the sky for me. One looking from a far might think that, but that would be a fallacy. But, I did get more from life than I ever needed, especially because I, just like Novak, don't need that much to be happy. I feel privileged that I can share what I have with those that have nothing. I would always choose precisely that. My family thought me the merits of such behavior, and I could never act in any other way".

Her family gave her another important lesson...

"I will never allow stereotypes to impose upon me the way I should carry myself. Who I ought to be, is something only I can know. That's what my parents thought me. I don't change for New York or London, Wimbledon or US Open. This is me, and Novak loves me for who I am".

There is a very specific reason why the first out of many "Little School of Life" was opened in Ljig. Jelena spent big part of her childhood there.

"I use to spend winter and summer breaks here. I never played video games, I played exclusively outdoors. My grandma, for every good grade I got, commissioned a song from a local radio station. Because of that, everybody knew me in Ljig".

At the very end, we had an opportunity to meet Jelena's proud grandfather. It seems that, for Jelena, it was very hard to divulge this portion of her life, always cherished as special and very intimate.

"With kids like my Jelena, all you got to do is live and prosper. They are all that is important in life. Out of all my grandchildren, Jeka was always the best (laughter)".

Conversation, that could go on indefinitely it seemed, then came to an end. That doesen't mean respite for Jelena. Following day she went to Knić, to open yet another „Little School of Life".

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