Nole, nickname of Djokovic, is illuminated at the Belgrade Tower, photo: EPA-EFE/Marko Djokovic
Nole, nickname of Djokovic, is illuminated at the Belgrade Tower, photo: EPA-EFE/Marko Djokovic

There are many reasons to like Novak Djokovic. By most tennis metrics, he has had a more successful career than his two arch-rivals, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, who had, in turn, outperformed everyone before them.

Djokovic dethroned them while they were at their peak in the early 2010s and has not looked back. He has also had to work harder than most players, having grown up in Slobodan Milosevic’s sanction-stricken Serbia. Crucially, he has achieved success in a sport where money and origin tend to pose larger obstacles than they do in team sports.

Before Djokovic, as Serbian tennis commentator Nebojsa Viskovic likes to put it, tennis in the Balkans was about as popular as ice hockey. But, for a post-war society, eager to prove itself on the world stage, Djokovic’s meteoric success has come as a godsend. 

If this is the case, then the events of the past two weeks, no matter how embarrassing for the world’s number one tennis player, are unlikely to have changed local hearts and minds. But it would be a major mistake to conclude that the region has stood behind Djokovic for such a prosaic reason as the place he happened to be born in.

It may well be that many people in the Balkans have fallen in love with the greatest regional sports figure in living memory because – rather than despite the fact that – he happens to be Novak Djokovic.

This is not to say they agree with everything he stands for, let alone his vaccine skepticism and well-documented displays of Serbian nationalism. Unlike Djokovic, most people in the region are vaccinated and would think twice before associating themselves with World War II Serbian Chetnik leader Draza Mihajlovic.

Yet, despite his occasional flirtations with the idea of a “Greater Serbia”, Djokovic, paradoxically, has region-wide appeal in a part of the world that is not known for sharing role models. With the possible exception of Kosovo, ex-Yugoslav countries are virtually united in their affection for Djokovic, as evidenced by the recent pro-Djokovic demonstrations in Zadar, a right-wing stronghold in Croatia.

Shakespeare famously wondered whether “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”. Are other Balkan athletes of Djokovic’s calibre as popular across the region as he is? Not quite. Take the Croatian national football team, which is far from beloved in Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, even after coming second at the 2018 World Cup.

But Djokovic is a denominator that transcends otherwise rigid national boundaries in the Balkans. If one had to summarise in one picture the region’s desire to shake off its past and prove a point to the world, Djokovic’s signature shushing gesture would make a strong contender.

The frequency of Djokovic’s use of this gesture makes one wonder if he might be battling two opponents every time he picks up his racket: one on the court and one in his head. At Wimbledon, arguably the queen of tennis tournaments, Djokovic’s feuds with the crowd have become part of his performance. In fact, Djokovic himself has credited this as the key factor in his epic comeback against crowd favorite Federer in the 2019 final. For a small region comprised of still-freshly independent countries, perceived disrespect assumes an understandably catalytic power.

Yet, over the years, Djokovic has found imaginary opponents to shush among more sympathetic audiences, too. Justified or not, what remains an inexplicable gesture to outsiders seems to resonate just fine all the way from Ljubljana to Skopje.

The unusual sight of a player picking fights with the crowd in a distinctly polite sport that originated among the noble classes of society epitomises another element of Djokovic’s image: his claim to authenticity. In a region that often prides itself on its spontaneity, Djokovic’s determination to “be himself” on the court and break with the commonly accepted code of conduct tends to be perceived as a good thing.

What might be viewed elsewhere as a lack of manners is regarded by Djokovic’s regional fans as a welcome evolution in a sport stuck behind the times. This argument is often peppered with strong us-versus-them language, as the open display of emotions by “our” Djokovic is contrasted with the usually restrained and, for the lack of a better word, robotic demeanor of “their” Federer.

While the morality of crowd shushing is a matter of taste, Djokovic’s alleged authenticity has also been used to rationalise less excusable aspects of his behaviour. When Djokovic smashed a ball at full speed and ended up hitting the neck of a lineswoman at the 2020 US Open, leading to his disqualification, many fans in the region were quick to justify his outburst as an uncontrollable manifestation of his passionate personality.

Similar rationalisations could be heard about the 2020 Adria Tour, an informal tournament organised by Djokovic in front of full stadiums amid the first wave of COVID-19, which was defended as the only possible behaviour from a free spirit who could not tolerate the suffocating constraints of the “new normal”.

Djokovic himself showed no remorse for the associated spike in COVID-19 cases, saying that, “if I had the chance to do the Adria Tour again, I would do it again”. Which brings us to the surreal events of the last two weeks. For both Djokovic and his regional fans, the imaginary opponent that needs to be shushed took its latest (but almost certainly not last) shape: the Australian federal government.

What was perceived by many others as an unsurprisingly hard line taken by one of the most ruthless governments in terms of the fight against COVID-19, was seen by many in the Balkans as another blow against a small and defenceless region through its most treasured exponent.

What has been viewed in most of the world as an irresponsibly missed opportunity to set an example of the importance of getting vaccinated by an influential public figure is largely seen at home as a noble display of freedom of choice.

Yet again, Djokovic has emerged as the cultural Rashomon of our generation.

No single individual – let alone a tennis player – should be held responsible for the collective consciousness of a region of over 20 million people. Yet, Djokovic, partly through no fault of his own, has become one of the most influential drivers of regional perceptions of the Self and the Other in the post-war era.

As long as it does not interfere with his career, which it increasingly might, Djokovic is likely to persist with the flag-waving, crowd-shushing, vaccine dodging, and other defiant behaviours that have turned him into a rare region-wide role model.

We can find a better one.

The author is a PhD candidate in pronatalist policies at the University of Oxford and a Master of Arts in East European Studies from Georgetown University.

Kristijan Fidanovski, BIRN, 20.01.2022.

Pešč, 25.01.2022.