Syria tension now invades U.S. sports

By Stewart Stogel

Tennis star Novak Djokovic

FLUSHING MEADOWS, N.Y. – As Congress prepares to debate the escalating crisis in Syria, the rising tensions have reached into the U.S. Open tennis event under way on Long Island.

The men’s No. 1 tennis player, Novak Djokovic, confessed to WND that the Syrian crisis “awakens memories.”

“It is like yesterday,” he said referring to the 1999 NATO bombing of the former Yugoslavia.

Djokovic’s concerns are part of a mosaic overshadowing this year’s final grand-slam event.

Once an oasis immune from the events outside the USTA National Tennis Center , the 2013 Open championships have seen fallout from the continuing tensions.

While there are few participants from the Middle East, there are many, like Djokovic, from the former Yugoslavia which found itself the target of a combined U.S./NATO bombing campaign in 1999 similar to the one now being threatened against Syria by the Obama administration.

United Nations Chief of Humanitarian Operations Valerie Amos, from the United Kingdom, said Friday the Syrian civil war has created more than four million refugees, two million of whom have fled the country. Amos also estimated more than 100,000 have been killed.

Many fear those numbers are sure to escalate if the U.S. attacks the embattled nation.

The growing crisis has not gone unnoticed outside the world of politics.

The U.S. Open has long played host to a motley collection of fans.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, when he was U.N. ambassador, often took time out to attend Open tennis matches.

Despite the current crisis, even this year, many a U.N. diplomat could be seen taking time out to visit the National Tennis Center .

Aside from the diplomats, many of the star tennis players confessed they too have been “monitoring” the crisis.

Djokovic was among those speaking out.

Prior to the 2013 Open, Djokovic visited the United Nations where he met General Assembly President Vuk Jeremic, himself a fellow Serb, and addressed the world body:

“The invitation first of all was the coolest part. … Having the privilege of speaking in the name of the global family of athletes on such a historical day. … It (the U.N.) is important for the whole world. … So being there was a special feeling I didn’t have before.

“Of course being in the position to speak in the name of all athletes and on the day proclaimed for international sports and peace was special.”

Djokovic is a prominent member of a philanthropic sports group known as “Champions For Peace” which is based near his home in Monte Carlo .

But the memories are clear. In 1999, when the U.S. and NATO launched air raids on Serbia, Djokovic was just a 12-year old living with his parents and two younger brothers in the mountain hamlet of Mount Kopanack outside Belgrade where they operated a fast food restaurant.

Like the Syrians of today, the Serbs in 1999 heard similar U.S. threats but were never prepared for the attacks when they came:

“It was a period of life we don’t wish on anybody to experience …The war was the worst thing for humanity … nobody really wins.

“It made me stronger, you know that two and a half months, We were kids … we looked at it from the bright side … we were only 12 years old. Okay, we thought we did not have to go to school so we would have more time on the tennis courts.We spent the whole day, every day, for almost two months with the planes flying over our heads. After a week or two of the bombings we tried to move on with our lives. … We just let life decide for us. It was not in our control.We were helpless basically.

“We all survived and we take this experience from our past as a great lesson in life and something that allowed us to grow stronger and to understand what it is to have basically nothing…You know, start again from zero, from scratch. … It made us appreciate the values of life that we probably wouldn’t have without such experiences.”

Just weeks after the air strikes, Djokovic, with his family’s approval, left Serbia to develop his tennis talent in Germany .

On Syria, the sports-diplomat explained:

“I am totally against any kind of weapons any kind of air strokes or missile attacks. … Because I had this personal experience, I know it cannot bring any good to anybody.”

To underscore his point, Djokovic will remain in New York after The Open to fund raise for his humanitarian endeavors.

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