Editorials

Novak Djokovic: nationalist or hostage of nationalism?

A supporter of Serbian tennis player Novak Djokovic holds a photo during a protest of support in Belgrade, Serbia, 08 January 2022.
© EPA-EFE/ANDREJ CUKIC   |   A supporter of Serbian tennis player Novak Djokovic holds a photo during a protest of support in Belgrade, Serbia, 08 January 2022.

Susține jurnalismul independent

One of the greatest athletes of today has become a symbol of the anti-vaxxer movement, but also a symbol of nationalists in Serbia. Djokovic has been abused several times by the media as a symbol of the world's injustice to Serbia, and many attribute nationalist views to him. But is he really a nationalist? To what extent is the “nationalist Djokovic” a media creation? Is the best tennis player in the world a hostage of Serbian myths and nationalism?

Before we dwell into the whole “Djokovic the nationalist” story and the many question marks that surround it, it should be noted that not even Novak Djokovic’s stance towards the coronavirus pandemic is clearcut. It is true that he showed scepticism towards vaccination and seemed to ignore the risks of catching - or spreading – Covid. His refusal to have the shot eventually lead to his expulsion from Australia. He missed the Australian Open, after having won it 11 times, and now people are wondering whether he will be allowed to participate in any tournament this year if he doesn’t get vaccinated. Some even say this could herald the end of the ATP top seed’s career. However, on the other hand Djokovic has so far donated money for the fight against the pandemic to the authorities of Serbia, Italy and Spain. Recently, there was news that Djokovic is the owner of a Danish company that is developing anti-Covid therapy.

Things get even more confusing when nationalist narratives and politics are involved.

The main narrative: the Serb-hating world would settle its accounts with Serbia through Djokovic

During the dispute between the Australian government and Djokovic, we have seen that neither he nor the Serbs are special in relation to others. Serbs persistently refuse to accept one simple and fundamental truth: Serbs are not special. They are the same as everyone else, even the most special among us, they are worth as much as the most special anywhere in the world and it is just like that.

The decision to expel Djokovic from Australia had nothing to do with his nationality, just as a decision to let him play would have had nothing to do either with him being a Serb. However, this whole situation was used to claim that Serbs are victims of world injustice and that the whole world hates them and their identity. Serbia is not so important to be hated by the whole world – and it’s not. The world doesn't hate Novak Djokovic either. It is true that the Western audience is not always in his favor, but that has nothing to do with the fact that he is a Serb.

There is one more serious problem in the whole story, and that is that the Serbian society convinced Djokovic to fight to prove the Serbian uniqueness. That the world must adapt to him or us, not the other way around. That he, or we, the Serbs, are worth more than anyone. Novak Djokovic, as the most successful Serbian athlete in history, suffers an unhealthy national pressure to act like going to the army before every tournament; he is not regarded as merely an athlete participating in a tournament, but as some sort of special representative.  National pressure to avenge the Serbs and all the injustice suffered by the Serbian people brings him into such troubles. If nationalists, politicians, and the Church left him to do what he does best in the world without any other expectations, everyone would be better off. Maybe that would be best for Novak. Instead, a narrative was created in Serbia that the world would settle accounts with Serbia and Serbs through Djokovic.

In Serbia, Djokovic is hailed as a hero in the likeness of the legendary 14th century knight Miloš Obilić every time he fits into the nationalist view of the world. However, whenever Djokovic does or says something that is not in line with the view of Serbian nationalists, they don’t hesitate to attack him.  

In the past few weeks, following his row with the Australian immigration authorities, Serbian nationalists, abusing the affection of the local and wider public towards Djokovic, described him as a "new Jesus", a "free world leader", a "Serb fighter", a "Kosovo hero in Melbourne", etc.

A symbol of “Serbs against the world”

The goal of the nationalists is clear: to use the great athlete in order to gain support for their view of the world, which comes down to the slogan "Serbs against the world".

Provoking distrust, fear, and then hatred towards the “others” – be they foreigners or Serbs that don’t embrace their view of the world – is the basic goal of Serbian nationalists. The more they manage to promote their paranoid view of the world, the more they benefit in terms of personal security, power and material gain.

The media, regardless of whether is influenced by the government or “independent”, played along in a rare show of unity.

Nationalists seek to make Djokovic a personification of Serbs in the general context of ‘us’ against the world (Australian and other national authorities who hate Serbs for reasons known only to them). Serbian media need to affirm the alleged emotional peculiarity of the relationship between Novak and other Serbs. It is not enough to use some neutral wording "compatriots", and even "Serbs", it must be strengthened so that it would be clear to everyone that Serbs and Novak are one and the same, united in love and martyrdom.

This manipulation and imposition of identity on both Serbs and Novak is characteristic of nationalists who always seek absolute identity freedom for themselves as well as the right to determine for others what they are and what they are not. In their understanding of freedom and human dignity, they are a point of reference for nationalists, what is true for them is not true for others, and their identity is the only "true" identity.

An icon that may be discarded as soon as its purpose is served

Anyone who criticizes the nationalist abuse of Novak as a Serbian icon is a traitor. However, if Novak "betrays Serbianness" and supports e.g. the Croatian national football team, takes the Croat coach Ivanišević to the professional staff or, as he did in Miami in 2007, says that Croats and Serbs are the same to him, he becomes a traitor for Serbian nationalists, a multiethnic citizen of the world and an object of hatred, and those who support Novak are traitors again.

In the fight for symbols, nationalists now use Novak Djokovic as an icon for their theories (anti vax is just one of them), but they will reject him when he no longer suits them. Novak Djokovic has never aligned to any political party or movement, but he keeps close ties with the ruling party in Serbia. Djokovic has been meeting Serbian Interior Minister known for chauvinism and hatred speech. Also, Djokovic’s family has personal interests to keep friendly connections with the government as they profit from it. They are allowed to build a tennis centre in Belgrade in a very popular area thanks to the compromise with the city authorities. The government, in turn, uses Djokovic’s image to improve its own ratings and, at the same time, is hailing him as a Serb national hero.

A nationalist or a victim of the nationalists?

There have been many speculations in the Serbian media about Novak’s attitudes towards the wars in the nineties and nationalistic policies. A photograph that surfaced recently shows Djokovic alongside former military commandant Milan Jolovic who was heavily engaged in the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Both men had attended a marriage in Bosnia. Jolovic was a commander in a unit that participated in the Srebrenica genocide. However, it is not clear whether Djokovic knows who is in the picture with him. The wedding was also attended by Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik, who is known for genocide denial.

Djokovic has also been adamant about Kosovo being rightfully Serbian, but then again, this view is widely shared in Serbia, well beyond the nationalistic circles. Novak Djokovic is also close to the Serbian Orthodox Church, which at times has been associated with nationalism. However, all these “evidence” is circumstantial: Novak Djokovic never made nationalistic statements, nor has he clarified his views about the past – or the present, for that matter. That might be the reason why there were speculations about Djokovic’s political opinions.

While Djokovic was waiting in Australia to hear the final decision about his departure, prominent Brexiteer Nigel Farage arrived in Belgrade in a show of support for the player’s family. Mr. Farage is known for his far right, euro sceptic and Russian friendly ideology and attitudes. This shows that Djokovic is embraced not only by anti-vaxxers groups, but also by some nationalists or far right groups outside Serbia; as he never took a stand against such groups, they may as well imagine that he agrees with them.

Nationalist or not, Djokovic continues to deepen the distrust of that part of the Serbian public who would like to see him play more active role in presenting progressive opinions rather than being a hostage of nationalistic narratives.

EBOOK> Razboi si propaganda: O cronologie a conflictului ruso-ucrainean

EBOOK>Razboiul lui Putin cu lumea libera: Propaganda, dezinformare, fake news

Vuk Velebit

Vuk Velebit




Follow us on Google News

6 minutes read
  • The decision to expel Djokovic from Australia had nothing to do with his nationality, just as a decision to let him play would have had nothing to do either with him being a Serb. However, this whole situation was used to claim that Serbs are victims of world injustice and that the whole world hates them and their identity. Serbia is not so important to be hated by the whole world – and it’s not. The world doesn't hate Novak Djokovic either. It is true that the Western audience is not always in his favor, but that has nothing to do with the fact that he is a Serb.
  • In Serbia, Djokovic is hailed as a hero in the likeness of the legendary 14th century knight Miloš Obilić every time he fits into the nationalist view of the world. However, whenever Djokovic does or says something that is not in line with the view of Serbian nationalists, they don’t hesitate to attack him.
  • This manipulation and imposition of identity on both Serbs and Novak is characteristic of nationalists who always seek absolute identity freedom for themselves as well as the right to determine for others what they are and what they are not. In their understanding of freedom and human dignity, they are a point of reference for nationalists, what is true for them is not true for others, and their identity is the only "true" identity.
  • In the fight for symbols, nationalists now use Novak Djokovic as an icon for their theories (anti vax is just one of them), but they will reject him when he no longer suits them.
Russia is recruiting Poles for its war against the West
Russia is recruiting Poles for its war against the West

As a new Cold War gathers steam, Poland finds itself on the frontline. Russian intelligence is recruiting agents in the country and it’s even using some for attacks against Kremlin opponents.

Michal Kukawski
Michal Kukawski
17 May 2024
Dispatch from Odesa: “Curse be they for such a «liberation »!”
Dispatch from Odesa: “Curse be they for such a «liberation »!”

Odesa, the main port-city of Ukraine, has been the target of Russian bombings since 2022. The attacks intensified after Russia withdrew from the grain agreement. Tatiana Ashurkevich spent a few days in the city and found among its residents a mix of fatalism, fatigue, and determination against the Russians.

Tatsiana Ashurkevich
Tatsiana Ashurkevich
15 May 2024
Reporting from Ukraine: “We’re already used to death”. Life in Kharkiv under Russian missile fire
Reporting from Ukraine: “We’re already used to death”. Life in Kharkiv under Russian missile fire

Kharkiv has been a target for the Russian army ever since the war broke out. Its inhabitants refuse to leave their homes and carry on with their lives, trying to preserve some sense of normalcy despite the constant shelling.

Tatsiana Ashurkevich
Tatsiana Ashurkevich
01 May 2024
Putin's Russia is preparing for a long, large-scale war
Putin's Russia is preparing for a long, large-scale war

Beyond Ukraine, Moscow is working on three fronts: strengthening the regime by "shaking up" its own elite, establishing governments-in-exile in former Soviet satellites, and promoting a pro-Russian discourse in the West.

Cosmin Popa
Cosmin Popa
30 Apr 2024