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First among equals

By Snezana Curcic


A couple of weeks ago, in the middle of a long and suspenseful night, I joined millions of viewers around the world watching a live, jaw-dropping finale: Novak Djokovic vs. Australia. I was as intensely emotional about it as, I imagined, Djokovic would have been on losing a major final against Rafael Nadal.  The grandslam eventually went to Nadal but the Australian Open this year will be remembered for the debacle over his great rival, Djokovic.

I left Belgrade in 1987, the year of Djokovic’s birth there. Ever since I have lived abroad. With a Slav accent and an ‘ic’ surname, no one promised it would be easy. I quietly strived to belong and be accepted, even making myself as bland as possible to resemble an average Brit. 

But gutsy Djokovic was something else. When that young man – my son’s generation – came on the scene, he gave me confidence to boldly and proudly assert that I was from the land of Serbia, not Siberia or Syria as some mistakenly heard. Unruly, unfiltered, irresponsible, barbaric, war-torn, yet painfully mine: my beautiful country.

This January my compatriot went to Australia with the aim of winning a historic 21st Grand Slam title, to prove he is the GOAT, greatest player of all time, in tennis. Instead, he became embroiled in a bizarre and messy feud, appealing against the authorities’ decision to cancel his visa. All of this took place outside the lines of the Australian Open’s tennis courts. Politicians slammed the door on the player who had refused to be vaccinated against Covid-19. 

Witnessing the Pandora’s box that this case had opened, I quietly wondered about the man himself. Who is Novak Djokovic really, a man reluctantly caught between a rock and a hard place of tennis, business, media, politics, the new world order of the pandemic, his family, Serbia and the rest of the world? Why had the undisputed world number one suddenly become a global villain without committing an obvious crime? There is no simple answer but in the West Djokovic has never really fitted the perceived image of the GOAT. He didn’t play ‘the game’, and in some ways he’s ‘not playing the game’ has been reflected in his obstinacy at the Australian Open. He has become a scapegoat through his treatment by the Australian authorities. It’s laughable that he is being cynically depicted in the media as a selfish anti-vax advocate; he’s not. Djokovic is just single-minded in his belief in what is best for him and his health, an attitude that has propelled him to the top of the tennis world.

The Yugoslav civil war drummed in the background of Djokovic’s stellar trajectory. In many interviews he reminisced about his training sessions as NATO bombs rained down on Serbia in 1999. He perfected his drop shot in a drained swimming pool converted into a tennis court. 

Novak’s talent, discipline and passion for tennis was obvious early on. In a clip on YouTube, as a seven-year-old already captivated by the sport, he can be seen guilelessly uttering with a distinct clarity and steeliness: ‘I want to be a champion’.  

Nothing could have stopped him from sweeping into the world of an elite sport traditionally enveloped in big money and squeaky white kit. His parents had limited means but were equally determined. ‘Nobody in my family ever touched a tennis racket before me. When something is meant for you, it is meant for you,’ Djokovic has said.

Every ATP tennis player in the top 100 can hit a winning shot, but what sets the champion apart is what goes on in his head. Djokovic seems to possess a supernatural mental capacity, supreme confidence and a stubborn Serbian streak to win where others would give up. During the Wimbledon final against Federer in 2019, when the whole stadium euphorically chanted ‘Roger, Roger’, Djokovic recalls that in his head he heard ‘Novak, Novak’. It was the longest and the most nail-biting final ever played there. After saving two match points, Novak won. 

Although Djokovic does not have a regular college education, he is a polyglot. I witnessed him addressing an adoring army of Beijing fans in Mandarin, when kissing a trophy of the 2014 China Open. In the Western hemisphere, however, he faced hostile crowds, and earlier on in his career, he tried to alter the way he was perceived.  While players such as Ivan Lendl were as serious as death on court, Novak became a first-rate showman, earning the nickname ‘Joker’ for karaoke singing and hilarious imitations of his opponents. That approach didn’t last; his more serious side eventually reasserted itself.

Top tennis players make millions. There is a joke in Belgrade that Novak is the only Serb who makes an honest living with the aid of a racket. He is also a charismatic, resilient, and outspoken man with integrity. He does not shy away from controversial opinions, fearlessly challenging anything or anyone, including the tennis establishment, and the consensus around vaccination against Covid-19. 

In 2019, along with the Canadian player Vasek Pospisil, Novak founded a breakaway Professional Tennis Players’ Association. While professional tennis is usually a cut-throat business, PTPA’s stated aim is to give players a greater voice and control over their careers. According to Djokovic, ‘many people who supported the association had not wanted their names made public for fear of criticism and retribution’.

Djokovic is a father of two, a philanthropist, humanitarian, patriot, and a devout Orthodox Christian. While his tennis peers sport glistening Cartier watches and pendants, he modestly wears a simple wooden cross. He has been criticised for his choice of quirky unorthodox medical and lifestyle practices. Few, though, can contest that his choices and commitment to them have aided his gruelling climb to the throne of tennis.

A ‘plant-based athlete’, a follower of gluten and dairy-free diets, love and peace gurus and Reiki healers, Djokovic regularly practices meditation, prayer, visualisation, tree-hugging, ice-water bathing and yoga. But only when the pandemic gripped the world, did Djokovic’s alternative ways and his refusal to get vaccinated become mercilessly targeted by those parroting the orthodoxy and led to him being subjected to cruel trolling on social platforms.

Whatever happens next, Djokovic is already in the gang of three; having won twenty grand slams along with Federer, just one less than Nadal. I hope to spend more sleepless nights not watching Novak’s stance leading to his ejection from other tennis tournaments but rather admiring this unconventional sport’s genius, doing what he does best, winning big points with a small yellow ball.  


Top photo courtesy of EPA/ Andrej Cukic 

Middle photo courtesy of Matt Hrkac, 

End photo courtesy of François Goglins