Novak Djokovic is far more to many people than just the world’s best tennis player – yet few if not no one knows who he really is. A take on the controversial superstar. Spartacus, Tesla, Jesus Christ. The list of historic people with whom Srdjan Djokovic has compared his eldest son Novak in the past is long – and curated at first glance confusing. But behind it lies the delicately constructed structure of a personality cult, on which the 61-year-old has been working for almost 35 years and which reached its climax with the entry farce in January 2022: Novak, the freedom fighter (Spartacus) and Messiah (Jesus Christ) of the Serbian People (Tesla). “Nole”, today’s Grand Slam record winner, was born in Belgrade on May 22, 1987 as the first of three sons of the restaurateur couple Srdjan and Dijana Djokovic. The parents run a pizzeria in the Kopaonik ski area, a good three hours away, and Novak rarely sees them. Grandfather Vladimir becomes a reference person for the boy. Their absence should pay off, decide Srdjan and Dijana, the first-born to benefit from the good business, to be promoted.
Little “Nole”‘s eyes are glued to the tennis court
Novak is sent to football, to basketball, shows talent. From a young age, however, his full attention was focused on the “white” sport: tennis. “Nole” sticks to the fence of a nearby tennis court for minutes on walks, and at the age of four he holds his first racquet. The photo of the chubby, overjoyed toddler is now revered like a religious icon by “Nolefam”, Djokovic’s fans. Four-year-old Novak Djokovic taking his first steps on the tennis court. (Source: Screenshot/novakdjokovic.com)
The timing of Novak’s enthusiasm for tennis couldn’t be more opportune. Everyone is talking about Yugoslavia in the early 1990s thanks to young talents Monika Seles and Goran Ivanisevic – Djokovic’s current coach. At the same time, the country, which also gives the Djokovic family support and contours, is falling apart. There are no guests in the family restaurant in the Kopaonik mountains, and resentment against Srdjan in his native region of Kosovo is growing, as is against Dijana in Belgrade because of her Croatian origins.
Like so many, the Djokovic couple takes refuge in the promises of nationalism. The rhetorical rhetoric of the Serbian Milosevic regime is also spread in the living room at home: Us against the rest. The world conspiracy against a strong Serbia.
This world view is reinforced by the NATO bombing of Belgrade in 1999. Srdjan rages that his homeland, Kosovo, no longer wants to belong to his homeland of Serbia. Dijana worries what will become of her talented firstborn. Meanwhile, Novak is celebrating his 12th birthday in a bunker and all he wants to do is stand out on the tennis court, even if the world should end around him.
Djokovic is aware of his burden early on
The family goes all in, scrapes together the last dinar of the family fortune and sends Novak on an educational tour of Europe. Tennis camps in Germany and England, tournaments all over the rest of the continent. The boy should do something with his talent. Despite his youth, Novak is aware of his burden. The family is counting on him, he has to deliver success, he has to represent Serbia in the world. The parents’ trust and self-abandonment are Novak’s greatest drive, with which he rushes from victory to victory, from title to title. Junior European Champion, first Davis Cup appearance, first ATP trophy in 2006 in Amersfoort, Netherlands. With him, his Serbian compatriots Jelena Jankovic and Ana Ivanovic are stirring up the tennis world.
Djokovic celebrates his first Grand Slam success at the Australian Open in 2008, but in his place it is Jankovic and Ivanovic who climb to the top of the world rankings. He remains in the shadow of the two ladies. Above all, however, in that of the two top dogs on the ATP tour: Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. Novak Djokovic won his first Grand Slam title in Melbourne in 2008. (Source: Paul Zimmer/imago images)
Djokovic is perceived as an intruder in the tennis world divided between these two players. On the one hand, Federer, who makes tennis look effortless, whose whole appearance transports you to the golden days of René Lacoste and Fred Perry; on the other hand, Nadal, the torero, the passionate fighter who never gives up under any circumstances. The fact that Djokovic knows how to combine all these characteristics on a good day seems to be studiously ignored by fans and experts. The frustration of the Djokovics is growing. Novak increasingly messes with the referees, smashes rackets, rants against the audience, who in turn acknowledges his behavior with whistles and other expressions of displeasure. Srdjan, who has built up a thriving restaurant chain under the name of his first-born and has risen into Belgrade high society, uses the well-known anti-Serbian rhetoric and claims in numerous interviews that the ATP wants a Serb at the top at all costs prevent world rankings.
“Nole” is fed up with black and white thinking – and yet can’t swim completely free
However, Novak is increasingly emancipating himself from his father’s worldview, moving to Monte Carlo – also for tax reasons, of course – and visiting the family in Belgrade at ever-increasing intervals. His younger brothers Marko (born in 1991) and Djordje (born in 1995) emulate him, try their hand at tennis, but can never match the talent of their big brother and can never leave Belgrade.
Marko collapses under the pressure to achieve the same success as “Nole” and struggles with depression for years. Djordje, the youngest and least talented brother, follows in the footsteps of his father and uses the name of the firstborn to make a name for himself as director of the “Novak Tennis Center” and the “Serbia Open”.
In the years on the ATP tour, Novak learns that humanity is not as easy to divide into black and white thinking as his father taught him. Novak loves making contact with strangers. Together with his wife Jelena, whom he married in 2014 after a nine-year liaison, he is committed to the needs of disadvantaged children worldwide, searches for a higher meaning in his life, a higher power that gives structure to his life, and finds his supposed answers in a whole bouquet of esoteric theories (read more about this here). His family is not happy with his apparent departure, and his father has to explain to his new friends in Belgrade’s social elite more and more often why his son has turned his back on his homeland, why he doesn’t pay his taxes properly in Serbia. “Novak is the greatest Serb in history,” Srdjan then dictated to the journalists who had been rushed to the “Novak No. 1” restaurant. The phase of crude comparisons begins.
Djokovic, the sun where so many warm and nourish themselves
Novak, meanwhile, makes admissions, always with the old thought, the burden: “Without the effort and expense of my parents, I would not be who I am today.” He registers his newly established foundation in Belgrade, which exclusively takes care of the needs of needy children in Serbia. He reinforces his father’s belief that Kosovo has always been and will remain a Serbian region. He immortalized Serbian tennis on the world map with the first Davis Cup success in his history, almost single-handedly. In 2022, Novak has long been “larger than life”, larger than life itself. And that has least to do with his indisputably outstanding sporting achievements. They may have maneuvered him into this position, but they were created by people like his father Srdjan, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and the esoteric gurus who accompanied him over the years.
They all used “Nole” as the sun to warm and nourish them. But as with the sun, which will one day stop shining on earth, the big bang is imminent in this scenario as well. Novak Djokovic is torn between all the parties he is supposed to please, driven by the greed for love, affection and recognition. It’s actually surprising that his father, who doesn’t shy away from any comparison, hasn’t yet discovered this worrying metaphor for himself.
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