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Novak Djokovic: The rebel who uses antipathy as his greatest weapon

Stoking tension in Kosovo at the French Open, sneering at Covid groupthink and driven by drama, the ‘world’s most renowned Serb nationalist’ has mainstream politics squarely in his sights, writes presenter Jim White

Friday 09 June 2023 11:03 BST
When it comes to his opinions, no one can accuse the 22-time grand slam tennis champion of ever keeping quiet
When it comes to his opinions, no one can accuse the 22-time grand slam tennis champion of ever keeping quiet (AP)

When Novak Djokovic scrawled a message across the lens of a television camera at the French Open this week, he knew precisely what he was doing. Responding to the latest burst of ethnic tension in Kosovo, he took the marker pen proffered by an autograph hunter and wrote: “Kosovo is the heart of Serbia; stop the violence.” But this was not some wishy-washy, lovey-dovey, peace-and-love gesture. As demonstrated when he repeated the words on his Instagram account, there was purpose in his scribble. This was a deliberate swipe: political, provocative and pointed. In short, typically Djokovic.

And his comment had the effect intended: the Kosovo Olympic Committee immediately called for an investigation, claiming that, while the act did not breach any international tennis rules, it was a dangerous intervention, fuelling an already febrile atmosphere.

Not that Djokovic cares much about what the Kosovo Olympic Committee thinks. He has never held back from addressing issues in the former Yugoslavia. And his views are unflinching. In 2008, when the concept of Kosovan breakaway from his homeland was first mooted, he wrote on his social media account: “We are prepared to defend what is rightfully ours. Kosovo is Serbia.”

Because this is the world’s most renowned Serb nationalist.

Indeed, when it comes to his opinions – he is equally noisy about Covid vaccinations and modern medical practices as he is about Balkan politics – no one can accuse the world’s best tennis player of ever keeping quiet.

His views might not be of much consequence to tennis lovers in Paris, New York or Melbourne. But they are not who he is speaking to. When he scrawled his message across that camera lens, he was talking to his people back home.

To suggest Djokovic is simply the most famous and beloved individual in Serbia is rather to undersell his meaning there. In Belgrade, he is reckoned his nation’s greatest asset, the one figure who projects their national identity around the globe. For many of his countrymen, he is Serbia.

And Djokovic is more than aware of his status. A significant philanthropist – he and his wife fund a sizable early learning charity that offers opportunities for children across the country – he has long put his money where his mouth is.

If not quite as fierce a nationalist as his father Srdjan, who was born in Kosovo, he nevertheless embraces the idea that Serbia is misunderstood, on the end of international victimisation, a state turned into a pariah by wilful disinformation.

In interviews, he has often spoken of his childhood: practising tennis in a bomb crater as his home city came under attack from Nato forces during the breakup of Yugoslavia. He has talked of how conflict forged his sense of who he is. In his mind, it has always been “us against the world”. As he said when addressing the Serb media after his latest brush with authority, he doesn’t care what the rest of the world might think. The struggle is all.

“Yes, I’ve made a lot of mistakes, but at least I was being authentic,” he said. “I’d choose that every time compared to saying whatever pleases those who abide by the standards of the establishment.”

The idea that he is a rebel against the mainstream extends beyond his nationalist politics. When he hosted a tournament in Croatia at the height of the pandemic, he did so to prove to the world that medical groupthink was overstating the strength of the virus. Never mind that he and his wife subsequently caught Covid; Djokovic was not going to kowtow to imposed strictures by getting himself vaccinated.

Even when it meant he was obliged to postpone his goal of becoming the most decorated tennis player of all time by being kicked out of Australia in January 2022 before the Open in Sydney, and refused the chance to play at the tournament in France, he was not going to stand down.

His father, incidentally, has long fostered the idea that his son is a man being punished for his views. When Novak was deported from Sydney, after failing to produce medical evidence for his vaccination exemption, Srdjan – something of a stranger to understatement – called him “the modern-day Spartacus” who was “being crucified like Jesus Christ”.

Similarly, just because most of the civilised world recognises the right of Kosovo to self-determination, Novak Djokovic is not going to go with the flow.

Because for him, the siege mentality such a position engenders is a vital motivational tool. The world may love Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, the crowds at Roland Garros and Wimbledon may always favour his opponent. But that doesn’t concern him one jot. He will use such antipathy to oil the mechanism of his determination. Like a tennis-playing Millwall supporter, no one likes him – but he doesn't care.

And when he retires from the game, as almost certainly the most decorated player in history, his future is clear. Like George Weah in Liberia or Imran Khan in Pakistan, he will use his singular sporting renown to build a domestic political career. That is why he is scribbling on French cameras: his campaigning has already started. Not that he needs to do much persuading. Frankly, if and when he stands for the Serbian presidency, every other candidate might as well retire.

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