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 years old) was born one year after bombings and still lives in the same tower block.
“He is a hero,” he said, looking at one of the murals of Mr. Djokovic. But he views him as more than just a sportsman. Petrovic, who is struggling to find work, wrote to Mr. Djokovic hoping he could help others. Although he hasn’t heard back, he is hopeful.
The nation shares this feeling of pride and connection over Djokovic’s victories on the courts, even though discontent is widespread about issues like endemic corruption or a distrusted government. Even those who disagree with Djokovic’s decision to not get vaccinated have not been able to dimen his shining light.
“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 Mr. Djokovic’s fate as the Omicron variant of the coronavirus spreads across the country.
As Mr. Djokovic fights for his stay in Australia despite not being vaccinated, it has become intertwined with a wider debate in Serbia over coronavirus regulations, government policies 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 stated that he doesn’t urge others to avoid immunizations, his image was taken by anti-vaccination groups on Facebook from Serbia and elsewhere.
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.
Based on evidence that he had tested positive for a virus in December, Mr. Djokovic was granted medical exemption to enter Australia. According to The Sydney Morning Herald. He later admitted that he had not been able to isolate the virus immediately after learning about it. He offered his support, but he did not give up.
“I am proud that through our effort we were able to help one of the best athletes of all time,” Mr. Vucic said Wednesday in an interview with the public broadcaster Radio Television of Serbia.
At the forefront of Mr. 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 that Mr. Djokovic is Serbia’s favorite sports star is 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 believe that his decision not to get the coronavirus vaccine was ill-informed or unhelpful, they should not lump him with anti-vaccination crusaders.
“For me, an anti-vaxxer is someone who actively promotes not taking vaccine,” unlike Mr. Djokovic, said Sasa Ozmo, a journalist for Sport Klub, a leading sports outlet in Serbia.
Dr. Radovanic, who was the former director of the Institute of Epidemiology, University of Belgrade, stated that Mr. Djokovic may more be a product of his environment than an influencer of it.
According to the University of Oxford’s Our World in Data project, less than half of the country’s population is fully vaccinated. This makes it one of the least vaccinated countries in Europe.
Over the course of the pandemic resistance to restrictions has grown. Serbia was able to keep its doors closed like the rest of Europe in the first wave of the virus. However, the suggestion of a renewed lockdown this winter led to riots. Since then, political leaders have been reluctant to enforce restrictions.
Vuk Brajovic, a tennis writer who has covered Mr. 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. Initial diagnosis was asthma. His performance rose after he changed to a gluten free diet and made lifestyle changes.
“For him, this was a watershed moment,” Mr. Brajovic said. “He went from a perennial No. “He went from a perennial No. 1 in a matter of a year.”
The Novak Djokovic standoff with Australia
Even the event that has drawn some of the harshest international condemnation — Mr. Djokovic’s decision to organize an ill-fated tennis tournament during the pandemic — looks very different when viewed from the region.
After several players had contracted the virus, the tournament was cancelled and Djokovic received harsh international criticism.
Many in the region believed that the pandemic was over at that point. For many, the tournament was extraordinary for another reason.
It was meant to be played in Serbia, Croatia, Montenegro, and Bosnia and Herzegovina — a reflection of Mr. 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,” Mr. Brajovic said.
However, some of his recent actions are being criticized in Serbia.
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 Mr. Djokovic had not promptly isolated after his test result.
“I love Nole,” he said, using a nickname for Mr. 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.
One year ago, the Belgrade Fair had long lines and around 8,000 doses were being administered daily.
Milena Turubatovic (primary care physician) administering vaccine doses at the site said they are now lucky to inoculate around 300 people per day.
She was also a fan of Mr. Djokovic but was concerned that the focus on his vaccination status would not be 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, Mr. 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 Mr. Djokovic’s visa.
“Obviously the fact he comes from a small and impoverished country was not something big, powerful people liked,” Mr. 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.”
Source: NY Times