When Novak Djokovic returns home to his hometown of Belgrade, he will be welcomed as a hero. At the airport, in central squares and in the working-class neighborhood of Banjica, where he partly grew up, crowds of Serbs will be cheering for him, predicts Natasja Pantic. More people than in the nine times he returned from Melbourne as the winner of the Australian Open.
“In this catastrophe with the Australian government – which is misusing him for political ends – ‘Nole’ has really shown what a fighter he is,” said Pantic. “He could have given up when they imprisoned him, but he has fought to the bitter end for what he believes in: his freedom not to be vaccinated. That’s more important than another title.”
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If the Australian Migration Minister Alex Hawke wanted to prevent the world famous tennis player from becoming a figurehead of the antivax movement by evicting Djokovic (34) it is counterproductive in Serbia. Skepticism has only increased around the brutalist flats in southern Belgrade where Djokovic lived with his grandfather Vladimir during the 1999 NATO bombing.
“I took two shots because they said that we would prevent the spread of corona. Well, that turns out to be quite disappointing,” says Pantic (44), who walks past a mural by Djokovic with her young daughter this crystal clear Sunday afternoon. She sees the Australian policy, and the measure taken by her own government that the catering industry is only accessible to vaccinated people after eight o’clock in the evening, as a maneuver to force the jab. “As soon as politicians start refusing people who have natural immunity, they can no longer be taken seriously.” That is why Pantic will “probably” not be vaccinated against corona a third time. Nearly half of the Serbs have been vaccinated.
Not your typical anti-vaxer
What exactly is Djokovic’s reason for refusing the shot is unknown. He’s not your typical anti-vaxxer. He does not use his podium to spread conspiracy theories that the vaccine does not work or is even harmful. He had never officially confirmed that he had not been vaccinated before the Australian incident. However, the twenty-time grand slam winner is an advocate of irradiated water and diets that would strengthen the natural defenses. Restaurant Novak, on the grounds of the tennis club that the Djokovic family has run since 2009, advertises a “gluten-free menu” because Djokovic believes he only became a truly great tennis player after he stopped eating bread and pasta.
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In the modern clubhouse near the old defense fortress of Belgrade, where the Danube and the Sava converge, the middle class is having a cup of coffee on Sunday morning. Most tennis courts are covered with fresh snow, but a few covered courts host a nationwide tournament for boys under fourteen. Jelena and Stevica Filipovic drove for two hours this morning, from Kraljevo to Belgrade, to cheer on their son Matea (12). “It was heartbreaking for us to see Nole being treated in Australia like a terrorist rather than the best athlete in the world,” said Jelena. She has been triple vaccinated herself and understands the rules with which Australia tries to prevent further infections. But the country shouldn’t have let their hero in first and then insult him like that, she thinks.
The way the Australian authorities have dealt with Djokovic has left many Serbs on a nationalistic nerve. “It is difficult to overestimate how much Djokovic means to our country. People know where Serbia is because they know him,” says Stevica. “Before that, we were only known for Milosevic.”
Slobodan Milosevic, the Serbian leader at the time of the Yugoslav Wars and the Bosnian genocide, was deposed by his own people in 2000 and subsequently extradited to the ICTY. Stevica Filipovic cites him as a negative example. But Milosevic and that tribunal also symbolize for many Serbs the feeling that they are being dealt with harder than others. The fact that Djokovic now seems to have been sacrificed for the straightforwardness of Australian politicians, and that he is not getting the support of other top tennis players such as Rafael Nadal, hurts the country deeply.
No one expressed that indignation more fiercely than Djokovic’s father, Srdjan, over the past week. He likened the impending eviction of his son to the crucifixion of Jesus. Most Serbs have seen the Djokovic family’s press conferences.
Far fewer people know that the tennis player lied about where he had been before his flight to Melbourne. Or that he continued to appear in public after a positive test in mid-December. That the German magazine The mirror revealed that his positive test may have been falsified, received little attention in Serbian media.
However, not everyone participates in the victim role. Marica Repac (73), who lives in Banjica’s communist flats, is disappointed that she won’t be able to watch Djokovic play tennis on television in the coming weeks. “But it’s nonsense to pretend that Australia is trying to destroy its tennis career,” she says. “By not getting vaccinated, he has risked it himself.”