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Why Serbia will always love Novak Djokovic

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BELGRADE — Novak Djokovic may have lost supporters around the world, but he’ll never lose Serbia.

The unvaccinated tennis champion failed in his final appeal Sunday against deportation from Australia on public health grounds, in a case that has stirred deep, protective feelings in his home country.

“As the prime minister of Serbia, I am not happy,” Prime Minister Ana Brnabić said in reaction to the decision. “But we shouldn’t be too emotional. I can’t wait to see Novak in his country, in Serbia, so we can go through this together and offer him support in these difficult times.”

Pro-Djokovic protests outside the parliament in Belgrade lasted for days and national media provided round-the-clock coverage of the player’s bid to overturn the cancelation of his visa and compete in the Australian Open, which he has won nine times in a legendary career.

Outrage poured in from the very top during Djokovic’s struggle with Australian officials. Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić blasted Australia on Friday for “harassing” Djokovic and attacking “him, his family, an entire nation.” 

For a country where many people believe the world sees it exclusively in a negative light after the Balkan wars of the 1990s, the Djokovic saga has reopened old wounds.

The sports superstar “has transcended sport and become a projection — of Serbian global success, triumph, and resilience after decades of international criticism and opprobrium,” said Jelena Subotić, a professor at Georgia State University in Atlanta focused on political narratives in the Balkans and wider.

“For many Serbs, each one of Novak’s victories is, in a sense, their own victory,” she added.

Djokovic the deity

Djokovic’s ascent to the top of one of the world’s most popular sports has long been a panacea for Serbs.

In a country that endured toxic nationalism, brutal warfare and strongman leader Slobodan Milošević in the 1990s, Djokovic has represented the ultimate success story as the country emerged from the breakup of the former Yugoslavia — a hyper-successful tennis champion, with a global fanbase and a string of endorsements worth tens of millions of euros.

There is a widespread perception in Serbia that individual athletes compete as representatives of their country, according to writer and former footballer Ivan Ergić, and if they are perceived to be mistreated, then it is seen as an offense to the nation.

Many “view sporting events as a kind of consolidation of national identity, and very often, especially in the Balkans, it served as a ‘nation-building’ mechanism,” said Ergić. 

Sportspeople are deified to provide ordinary people with the reflected dignity that was stripped away for so long in war-torn, post-socialist countries, he added. In a sense, Ergić said, Djokovic and other top athletes are the yardstick by which Serbia itself is measured.

The response in Serbia has essentially been: If the world loves Djokovic, it loves Serbia; if the world insults Djokovic; it insults Serbia.

“When it all came crashing down, it produced tremendous resentment, anger, and backlash. Djokovic has become so directly entangled with Serbian national identity that attacks on him are felt as personal affronts to the nation as well,” Subotić added.

Vučić, the country’s leader, leaned into that perspective during his broadside against Australian authorities — who have also been widely criticized for using Djokovic as a pawn in their strategy for an upcoming national election.

“They have never been able to take away our heart, our pride and our dignity … the attacks and the pressure on Novak Djokovic, on a Serbian citizen, a Serb, for unclear reasons have made it impossible for me not to react,” Vučić said.

Serbian loyalty

As Serbs form a protective ring around Djokovic, few have been publicly critical of him for controversial remarks on vaccination, pseudo-scientific views and hosting a tennis exhibition tournament in June 2020 that became a coronavirus super-spreader event. 

Indeed, Serbian media has backed him resolutely in the Australian dispute, with journalist Aleksandar Stojanović saying Djokovic was a sporting martyr on a par with Black Power salute sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos, boxer Muhammad Ali and NFL player Colin Kaepernick, who each had their careers damaged or torpedoed completely for making a political protest in the sporting arena. 

Stojanović’s opinion reflects that of a large section of the country, who believe that Djokovic is standing up against oppressive state mechanisms.

The dearth of critical voices when it comes to Djokovic also reflects the fact that Serbia has one of the worst freedom of expression rankings in the region and Europe. 

It currently sits in 93rd place in the Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom rankings and is described as “a country with weak institutions that is prey to fake news spread by government-backed sensational media,” and where “journalists are subjected to almost daily attacks.”

The country’s most widely available print outlets are tabloids that toe the government line and attack the administration’s opponents. 

They are also infamous for their “tendency,” Subotić said, to spread misinformation and conspiracy theories. Informer, Serbia’s most notorious tabloid, claimed that the Australian government “are puppets in the hands of the Americans and the British” and that the Melbourne judges have personal antagonism toward Serbia.

As Djokovic seeks to win more Grand Slams and become the most successful men’s tennis player in history despite his Australian setback, he can be sure of one thing: Serbs will be with him through thick and thin. 

“His tennis almost serves like comfort food — Serbia may be a hard place to live, but at least we have Novak,” said Subotić.

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