Sunday, June 4, 2023

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

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

But the murals of Novak Djokovic have a special meaning – this is where the grandfather of the future tennis star lived and where he, as a 12-year-old boy, sought refuge when NATO bombed the Serbian capital in 1999.

Georgio Petrovich, 21, was born a year after the explosion and lives in the same imposing, angular block of flats.

“He’s a hero,” he said, looking at one of the murals of Djokovic. But he sees more in him than a sports champion. Trying to find work, Mr. Petrovic wrote to Mr. Djokovic, thinking he could help where others had failed. He has not received an answer, but he is hopeful.

This sense of personal connection and pride is widespread in a nation that has come together over his on-court triumph at a time when there is widespread dissatisfaction with issues such as endemic corruption and a government that many distrust. The recent turmoil over whether Mr. Djokovic should be allowed to play in the Australian Open has done little to dampen his brilliance, even among those who disagree with his decision to remain unvaccinated.

“In this gray and lousy environment, the only joyful event for many is watching him win another trophy,” said Dr. Zoran Radovanovic, an epidemiologist who has watched the debate over Mr. Djokovic’s fate as the micron variant of the coronavirus spreads. countrywide.

As Mr Djokovic fights to stay in Australia despite his decision not to get vaccinated, he has become embroiled in a wider debate in Serbia about coronavirus restrictions, public policy, personal freedom and vaccinations.

For some, he poses a public health threat – a powerful and influential figure whose decision not to get vaccinated against the coronavirus could undermine vaccination campaigns in a region where vaccine use is among the lowest in Europe.

Although he said he does not encourage others to avoid vaccinations, his image has been used by many anti-vaccination Facebook groups in Serbia and beyond.

For others, especially those in his homeland, he is widely viewed as a victim, with political and religious leaders rushing to his defense using powerful regional martyrdom narratives that deeply resonate with the public but also serve their own interests.

Ahead of elections in April, President Aleksandar Vucic, the country’s authoritarian leader, tried to walk a fine line by encouraging vaccinations and staunchly defending the nation’s darling.

“When you can’t beat someone on the court, that’s when you do these things,” he said last week after the tennis star’s arrest.

According to The Sydney Morning Herald, Mr Djokovic was granted medical clearance to enter Australia based on evidence he provided that he had tested positive for the virus in December. But he later admitted that it was not possible to isolate him immediately after he learned about the result. However, Mr. Vucic continued to offer his support.

“I am proud that thanks to our efforts, we were able to help one of the best athletes of all time,” Mr. Vučić said Wednesday in an interview with the public television station Radio and Television of Serbia.

But at the forefront of Mr. Djokovic’s defense is his family.

“Novak is Serbia and Serbia is Novak,” tennis star father Srdjan Djokovic told a recent protest. “They are trampling on Novak and thereby trampling on Serbia and the Serbian people.”

To say that Mr. Djokovic is Serbia’s favorite sports star is an understatement. When he won his first Wimbledon title in 2011, around 100,000 people took to Belgrade’s central square to celebrate his victory.

Even those who see his personal decision not to vaccinate against the coronavirus as ignorant and useless do not associate him with the anti-vaccination crusaders.

“For me, an anti-vaccinator is someone who actively promotes non-vaccination,” as opposed to Mr. Djokovic, said Sasa Ozmo, a journalist with Sport Klub, the leading sports publication in Serbia.

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

According to the Our World in Data project at the University of Oxford, the country has one of the lowest vaccination rates in Europe, with less than 50 percent of the population fully vaccinated.

And during the pandemic, resistance to restrictions has grown. While Serbia went into lockdown like the rest of Europe during the first wave of the virus, a proposal to reopen the lockdown last winter led to riots. Since then, political leaders have been reluctant to impose restrictions and enforce them.

Vuk Brajovic, a tennis columnist who has covered Djokovic for more than a decade, said that while the star has made mistakes — like coming out publicly after he said he had been briefed in December that he tested positive for the virus — his views on strength are ” alternative medicine is best understood in the context of his career.

“He had serious breathing problems early on in his rise to the top divisions of tennis due to certain allergies,” he said. At first the doctors thought it was asthma. But it wasn’t until he switched to a gluten-free diet and made other lifestyle changes that his results skyrocketed.

“It was a turning point for him,” Mr. Brajovic said. “He went from all-time No. 3 to No. 1 in just one year.”

Even the event that drew the most strident international condemnation – Mr. Djokovic’s decision to organize the ill-fated tennis tournament during the pandemic – looks very different when viewed from the region.

The tournament, which began in June 2020, was canceled after several players contracted the virus and Mr. Djokovic faced harsh international criticism.

But at the time, many in the region thought the pandemic had reached its peak. The tournament was remarkable for many for another reason.

The game was intended for Serbia, Croatia, Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina – a reflection of Mr. Djokovic’s rare ability to transcend nationalist sentiment in a region where ethnic, cultural and historical divisions forged by the war are still deeply rooted.

“His attitude and his philosophy on this set of issues is united in the sense that he is willing to overcome differences in every possible way,” Mr. Brajovic said.

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

Dusan Nedeljkovic, 61, filled out a booster form Thursday at the Belgrade Fair, the capital’s main vaccination center, and said he was upset that Mr Djokovic was not isolated in a timely manner after the test result.

“I love Nole,” he said, using a nickname for Mr. Djokovic. “But I don’t like what he did. He lied.”

He said he didn’t think the tennis star’s views on vaccines had a big impact in the country, but he did worry about the coming wave of infections.

“Not enough people, especially people aged 40 and younger, are vaccinated,” he said.

A year ago, queues at the Belgrade fair stretched into blocks, with about 8,000 doses administered daily.

Dr. Milena Turubatović, a primary care doctor who administered doses of the vaccine on site, said they were now lucky enough to be vaccinating 300 people a day.

She, too, was a fan of Mr. Djokovic, but worried that focusing on his vaccination status wouldn’t help.

“I have a lot of respect for him, but I do not agree with his attitude towards vaccination,” she said. And, of course, it does.

For his family, Mr. Djokovic fights for justice and freedom.

At their restaurant in central Belgrade called Novak, family members celebrated the decision earlier this week by a judge in Australia to overturn the government’s decision to revoke his visa.

“Obviously the fact that he comes from a small and poor country didn’t sit well with big and powerful people,” Mr Djokovic’s father said. “They thought they had God-given powers, that this world was their world, and it was impossible for a young man from a small, poor country to be the best in his sport.”

World Nation News Desk
World Nation News Desk
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