A divisive figure around the world, Djokovic is a hero in Serbia

As Djokovic fights to stay in Australia despite his decision not to be vaccinated, he has become entwined with a broader debate in Serbia about coronavirus restrictions, government policies, personal liberty and vaccination

By Marc Santora
Published: Jan 15, 2022

Novak Djokovic’s tennis center next to the Danube River in Belgrade, Serbia, Jan. 13, 2022. Many feel a personal connection and pride with the tennis star, even if they do not agree with his decisions to stay unvaccinated for COVID-19. (Marko Risovic/The New York Times)

BELGRADE, Serbia — The images painted on the concrete walls of the Brutalist housing complex in Banjica, a residential area a few miles south of downtown Belgrade, depict some of Serbia’s most cherished figures: revered religious leaders, poets and warriors.

But the murals there of Novak Djokovic hold a special significance — this is where the future tennis star’s grandfather lived and where, as a 12-year-old boy, he sought shelter while NATO bombed the Serbian capital in 1999.

Georgio Petrovic, 21, was born a year after the bombing and lives in the same imposing, angular tower block.

“He is a hero,” he said, looking at one of the murals of Djokovic.

But he sees him as more than a sports champion. Struggling to find a job, Petrovic has written to Djokovic, thinking he might be able to help where others have failed. He has not heard back, but he is hopeful.

That feeling of personal connection and pride is widely shared in a nation that has united over his triumphs on the court at a time when discontent is widespread over issues like endemic corruption and a government that is widely distrusted. The recent imbroglio over whether Djokovic should be allowed to play in the Australian Open has done little to dim his shine, even among those who do not agree with his decision to stay unvaccinated.

“In this gray and lousy environment, the only joyful event for many is watching when he wins another trophy,” said Dr. Zoran Radovanovic, an epidemiologist who has been watching the debate over Djokovic’s fate as the omicron variant of the coronavirus spreads across the country.

As Djokovic fights to stay in Australia despite his decision not to be vaccinated, he has become entwined with a broader debate in Serbia about coronavirus restrictions, government policies, personal liberty and vaccination.

For some, he is a threat to public health — a powerful and influential figure whose decision not to be vaccinated against the coronavirus could undermine inoculation campaigns in a region where vaccine uptake is among the lowest in Europe.

Although he has said he does not urge others to avoid inoculations, his image has been co-opted by a host of anti-vaccination groups on Facebook in Serbia and beyond.

To others, particularly those in his homeland, he is widely seen as a victim — with political and religious leaders rushing to his defense by tapping into powerful regional narratives of martyrdom that resonate deeply with the public but also serve their own interests.

With elections looming in April, President Aleksandar Vucic, the country’s authoritarian leader, has tried to walk a fine line, both encouraging vaccinations while steadfastly defending the nation’s favorite son.

“When you can’t defeat someone on the court, then you do such things,” he said last week after the tennis star was detained.

Djokovic was granted a medical exemption to enter Australia based on his submission of evidence that he had tested positive for the virus in December, according to The Sydney Morning Herald. But he later acknowledged that he had failed to isolate immediately after he found out about the result. Still, Vucic continued to offer his support.

“I am proud that through our effort we were able to help one of the best athletes of all time,” Vucic said Wednesday in an interview with the public broadcaster Radio Television of Serbia.

At the forefront of Djokovic's defense, however, has been his family.

“Novak is Serbia, and Serbia is Novak,” Srdjan Djokovic, the tennis star’s father, said at a recent protest. “They are trampling on Novak and thus they are trampling on Serbia and the Serbian people.”

To say Djokovic is a beloved sports star in Serbia is something of an understatement. When he won his first Wimbledon title in 2011, some 100,000 people turned out in Belgrade’s central square to celebrate his victory.

Even those who think his personal decision not to get a coronavirus vaccine is ill-informed and unhelpful do not lump him in with anti-vaccination crusaders.

“For me, an anti-vaxxer is someone who actively promotes not taking vaccine,” unlike Djokovic, said Sasa Ozmo, a journalist for Sport Klub, a leading sports outlet in Serbia.

Radovanic, the former director of the Institute of Epidemiology at the University of Belgrade, said Djokovic may be more a product of his environment than a shaper of it.

The country has some of the lowest vaccination rates in Europe, with less than 50% of the population fully vaccinated, according to the Our World in Data project at the University of Oxford.

And over the course of the pandemic, resistance to restrictions has grown. While Serbia locked down like the rest of Europe during the first wave of the virus, the suggestion of a renewed lockdown last winter led to riots. Since then, political leaders have been loath to put in place and enforce restrictions.

Vuk Brajovic, a tennis writer who has covered Djokovic for more than a decade, said that while the star had made mistakes — like making a public appearance after he said he was informed about testing positive for the virus in December — his views on the power of “alternative” medicine are best understood in the context of his career.

“He had significant problems with breathing during the early phase of his ascension to top flights of tennis due to certain allergies,” he said.

Doctors first thought it was asthma. But it was only when Djokovic turned to a gluten-free diet and made other lifestyle changes that his performance soared.

“For him, this was a watershed moment,” Brajovic said. “He went from a perennial No. 3 player, to No. 1 in a matter of a year.”

Even the event that has drawn some of the harshest international condemnation — Djokovic’s decision to organize an ill-fated tennis tournament during the pandemic — looks very different when viewed from the region.

The tournament, which started in June 2020, ended up being canceled after several players contracted the virus and Djokovic faced scathing international criticism.

But, at that moment, many in the region believed the pandemic had peaked. The tournament, for many, was remarkable for another reason.

It was meant to be played in Serbia, Croatia, Montenegro and Bosnia-Herzegovina — a reflection of Djokovic’s rare ability to transcend nationalist sentiments in a region where ethnic, cultural and historical divisions forged in war still run deep.

“His attitude and his philosophy toward that set of issues is uniform in the sense that he wishes to bridge the divides in every way possible,” Brajovic said.

But even in Serbia, there is criticism of some of his recent actions.

Dusan Nedeljkovic, 61, was filling out a form to get a booster shot on Thursday at the Belgrade Fair, the capital’s main vaccination center, and said he was upset that Djokovic had not promptly isolated after his test result.

“I love Nole,” he said, using a nickname for Djokovic. “But I do not love what he did. He lied.”

He said he did not think that the tennis star’s views on vaccines have much effect in the country, but he did worry about the coming wave of infection.

“Not enough people, especially people in their 40s and younger, are vaccinated,” he said.

A year ago, lines at the Belgrade Fair stretched for blocks and some 8,000 doses were being administered daily. Dr. Milena Turubatovic, a primary care physician administering vaccine doses on the site, said they were now lucky to inoculate 300 people a day.

She, too, was a fan of Djokovic but worried that the focus on his vaccine status was not helpful.

“I respect him highly, but do not agree with his attitude on vaccination,” she said. “And of course it has an impact.”

For his family, Djokovic’s fight is about justice and freedom.

At their restaurant in central Belgrade — named “Novak” — family members celebrated the decision this week by a judge in Australia to overturn a government decision to revoke his visa. Australia’s immigration minister, Alex Hawke, is still considering using his powers to revoke Djokovic’s visa.

“Obviously the fact he comes from a small and impoverished country was not something big, powerful people liked,” Djokovic’s father said. “They thought they had God-given powers, that this world is their world, and it is impossible that a young man from a small, poor country can be the best in their sport.”

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©2019 New York Times News Service

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