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Tennis Star Novak Djokovic Unites Divided Serbia

  • Henry Ridgwell

Serbia's Novak Djokovic hits a backhand return against Tomas Berdych, from the Czech Republic, during a semifinal match at the Western & Southern Open tennis tournament in Mason, Ohio, August 20, 2011

Serbia's Novak Djokovic hits a backhand return against Tomas Berdych, from the Czech Republic, during a semifinal match at the Western & Southern Open tennis tournament in Mason, Ohio, August 20, 2011

Serbians weary of seeing the world’s media focus on their country’s recent wartime past are uniting in praise of a new national hero, Novak Djokovic. Djokovic trained as a young boy amid the chaotic breakup of Yugoslavia, rising to become world tennis number one and favorite for the U.S. Open. But the recent arrest of two former wartime generals has provided another reminder of the conflicts that tore the Balkans apart in the 1990s.

Tennis coach Jelena Gencic is putting two young players through their drills at a rundown court on the edge of Belgrade. Gencic lived through seven decades of her country’s turbulent history. She is hailed as the person who discovered Serbia’s biggest sporting star. Gencic describes the moment they first met.

“I saw one little boy just behind the fence, watching, watching, watching all morning," said Gencic. "I come to him and ask him, ‘OK boy, do you know what we are doing here?’ ‘Yes, I know. You play tennis.’ ‘Oh. What’s your name?’ ‘Novak Djokovic.’ Very clear. Very strong.”

Djokovic’s image adorns buildings in Belgrade. His every match is watched avidly in sidewalk cafes. It was not an easy route to become number one in the world.

Just as Djokovic was discovering his talent for tennis in the early 1990's, Yugoslavia began its bloody breakup. His teenage training years took place against the backdrop of the Kosovo conflict and NATO bombing raids on Belgrade.

Coach Gencic describes how she dodged the bombs to keep Djokovic playing tennis.

“I listened to the radio. ‘There’s a bomb here in Banitsa.’ OK, next day, we shall play here. ‘No! Why here?’ Because tomorrow the bombs will hit another side of the city," she said. "That’s what happened. When I listened in the morning to where the bombs were, so we would go in that part of Belgrade to practice tennis.”

As Djokovic’s triumphs put Serbian tennis on the map, the country has been in the spotlight for very different reasons.

The arrest in May of former Bosnian Serb general Ratko Maldic and in July of former Croatian Serb general Goran Hadzic have been painful reminders of the country’s brutal past. Both are accused of committing war crimes during the Balkans conflict.

Ljiljiana Smajlovic is president of the Serbian Journalists’ Association. She said there is anger at the way Serbia is simplified in the world’s media.

“In the sense that Djokovic is someone that we look up to and we’re happy that the world sees us in a better context than it has in the past, and at the same time there is resentment... Mostly when people think of Serb war crimes, I think it’s in terms of the resentment that they are played up so much in the West and it’s not in terms of, ‘God, are we going to face up to our past?’” said Smajlovic.

The arrests of Mladic and Hadzic were meant to boost Serbia’s hopes of joining the European Union. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has warned Belgrade, however, that it needs to make progress in talks with Kosovo, which declared independence from Serbia in 2008.

Smaljovic said Serbs are growing tired of EU demands.

“I see some trouble ahead in this lack of hope almost. This feeling that we’re being told there’s no alternative all the time. Hearing that there’s no alternative is not something that makes your heart grow fond," she said. "Because transition has been, for the most part, that you lose your job and then you never find a job as good as that one.”

Belgrade does not seem like a city stuck in its past. The annual beer festival is just one of many events to have emerged in the last decade that attract visitors from across the globe.

But the lack of interest among young people in Serbia’s recent history concerns Miljenko Dereta, director of the non-governmental organization, Civic Initiatives.

“We had a survey recently because we have a youth program, and we were shocked by the lack of information they have," said Dereta. "They didn’t know there was a war in Bosnia, incredibly. They didn’t understand why the Hague tribunal is judging only the people from this region because they didn’t have the basic information it was formed for this region.”

Back at the tennis club on the outskirts of Belgrade, Gencic is mentoring the next generation of Serbian stars.

At 12 years old, they were only just born when the NATO bombs were falling on Belgrade. They have one aim - to emulate their hero.

“Novak Djokovic,” said one young player when asked which player inspires.

“Novak Djokovic,” replied another.

Like millions of people across Serbia, they will be following every step of Djokovic’s attempts to win his first U.S. Open title. He is the one person, it seems, who unites this country - the new face of Serbia.

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