BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — Serbia is nervously awaiting the outcome of what is increasingly looking like a soap opera with the country’s most famous sports idol in the lead role.
The highest ranked male tennis player in the world, Novak Djokovic, faces the prospect of deportation Australia, where he had hoped to win his 21st Grand Slam title at the Australian Open this month, which would set the men’s record for major championship wins.
The 34-year-old Serbian’s ability to compete in Melbourne and overtake rivals Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer has been in limbo since the Australian Border Force canceled Djokovic’s visa because he failed to meet visa requirements. a COVID-19 vaccination exemption. A hearing in the case has been set for Monday.
Djokovic fans at home are in shock and Serbian politicians seized the opportunity to boost their popularity ahead of this year’s election as protesters gathered in downtown Belgrade to demand the release of the tennis star.
The government of populist Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic has summoned the Australian ambassador to protest the “detention” of Djokovic.
Vucic said he spoke to Djokovic and blasted Australian authorities for keeping the tennis star in an ‘infamous hotel’, referring to the secure facility where Djokovic is staying with asylum seekers and refugees .
“I’m afraid this exaggeration will continue,” Vucic said. “When you can’t defeat someone on the pitch, then you do such things.”
Most Djokovic fans at home agree, reflecting the anti-Serb conspiracy theories that are rampant in the Balkans.
“It is historically obvious that the world has something against Serbs,” said Belgrade resident Darko Ikonic.
“I’m not saying Serbs are heavenly people or anything like that, that’s nonsense,” he added. “But obviously they don’t want him to be the best tennis player in history because they like other tennis players, like Nadal or Federer, better.
The odds of a player from Serbia, a Balkan country bombed by NATO in 1999 when Djokovic was a boy, economically crippled, with few tennis courts and little tennis pedigree, becoming world No. close to zero.
However, Djokovic did it, creating a huge following in Serbia as well as neighboring Balkan states, although he was heavily criticized abroad for his frequent theatrics and outbursts in court, as well as his approach to the COVID-19 pandemic and refusing to disclose whether or not he was vaccinated.
He has had a strained relationship with some spectators around the world, possibly because he is seen by Federer and Nadal supporters as an intruder, the third member of the sport’s so-called Big Three. He is the youngest of the trio – Federer is 40; Nadal 35 – and came after the ‘Fedal’ rivalry garnered so much attention.
At the start of the 2011 season, Federer had 16 major titles, Nadal nine and Djokovic one. Over the next decade, Djokovic continued to win over them, helped in part by compiling a winning record against each.
And although he tends to hear a lot of support from the crowds, Djokovic still has seemed to receive less support when his opponent was Federer or Nadal. In terms of endorsements, Djokovic earned less than half of what Federer did from May 2020 to May 2021, according to Forbes.
On and off the pitch, Djokovic says and does what he wants, be it his anti-vaccine stance, his attempt to create a players association outside the official channels supported by Nadal and Federer or the occasional tantrum. playing. This included throwing and breaking his racket during the Tokyo Olympics and other matches or, more infamously, when he was disqualified from the 2020 US Open after accidentally hitting a linesman in the throat with a ball after losing a match.
Amid the pandemic in 2020, and with professional tennis shut down, Djokovic hosted the Adria Tour, a series of non-social distancing exhibition events in his native Serbia and neighboring Croatia.
The tournament was scrapped after several participants tested positive for coronavirus. Djokovic and his wife Jelena later revealed positive tests.
Djokovic’s father, Srdjan Djokovic, said on Thursday that his son was a symbol of a “free world” and that an attack on him was tantamount to an attack on Serbia.
He accused Australia and the West in general of “mistreating” Djokovic for being a Serb and referred to Serbia’s 1999 NATO bombing of his breakaway province of Kosovo.
“Novak is Serbia and Serbia is Novak,” he said. “They trample Novak and therefore they trample Serbia and the Serbian people.”
“Shame on them, everyone who loves freedom should rise up with Serbia,” said Srdjan Djokovic. “They crucified Jesus and now they are trying to crucify Novak the same way and force him to kneel down.”
Associated Press writer Jovana Gec and AP sportswriter Howard Fendrich contributed to this report.