For many people, Novak Djokovic is far more than just the world’s best tennis player – but only a few, if not nobody, know who he really is. An approach to the controversial superstar.
Spartacus, Tesla, Jesus Christ. The list of historically significant people with whom Srdjan Djokovic compared his eldest son Novak in the past is long – and curated at first glance confused. But behind this is the delicately constructed structure of a personality cult that the 61-year-old has been working on for almost 35 years and which reached its climax with the immigration episode in January 2022: Novak, the freedom fighter (Spartacus) and Messiah (Jesus Christ) of the Serbian Volks (Tesla).
“Nole”, today’s Grand Slam record winner, was born on May 22, 1987 in Belgrade as the first of three sons of the restaurateurs Srdjan and Dijana Djokovic. The parents run a pizzeria in the Kopaonik ski area, a good three hours away, but they rarely see Novak. Grandfather Vladimir becomes a caregiver for the boy. Their absence should pay off, decide Srdjan and Dijana, the firstborn to benefit from the good business, are encouraged.
Little “Nole” has eyes glued to the tennis court
Novak is sent to football, basketball, shows talent. From an early age, however, his full attention is devoted to 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 racket. The photo of the chubby, overjoyed toddler is revered today by the “Nolefam”, Djokovic’s fans, like a religious icon.
Four-year-old Novak Djokovic taking his first steps on the tennis court. (Source: Screenshot / novakdjokovic.com)
The timing for Novak’s enthusiasm for tennis couldn’t be more favorable. Yugoslavia was on everyone’s lips in the early 1990s thanks to the 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 shape, is in a state of disintegration. The guests in the family restaurant in the Kopaonik Mountains are absent, resentments are growing against Srdjan in his region of origin Kosovo, as well as against Dijana due to her Croatian descent in Belgrade.
Like so many, the Djokovic couple saved themselves in the promises of nationalism. The rhetorical volts of the Serbian Milosevic regime are also spread in the living room at home: Us against the rest. The world conspiracy against a strong Serbia.
This worldview is reinforced by the NATO bombing of Belgrade in 1999. Srdjan is furious 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 just wants to stand outside on the tennis court, even if the world should end around him.
Djokovic is aware of his burden from an early age
The family goes all-in, scrapes together the last dinar of the family’s fortune and sends Novak on an educational tour through Europe. Tennis camps in Germany and England, tournaments all over the rest of the continent. The boy should make something of his talent. Despite his young age, Novak is well aware of his burden. The family counts on him, he has to deliver success, he has to represent Serbia in the world.
The trust and self-abandonment of the parents 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, the Netherlands. With him, his Serbian compatriots Jelena Jankovic and Ana Ivanovic stir up the tennis world.
Djokovic celebrated his first Grand Slam success at the Australian Open in 2008, but instead of him it is Jankovic and Ivanovic who climb the top of the world rankings. He remains in the shadow of the two ladies. But above all 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 takes you back to the golden age of René Lacostes and Fred Perry; on the other hand, Nadal, the torero, the passionate fighter, for whom giving up is not an option under any circumstances. Fans and experts seem to deliberately ignore the fact that Djokovic knows how to combine all these characteristics on good days.
The Djokovics’ frustration grows. Novak increasingly messes with the referees, smashes thugs, grumbles against the audience, which in turn acknowledges his behavior with whistles and other expressions of displeasure. Srdjan, who has built up a well-running restaurant chain under the name of his first-born and has risen to high society in Belgrade, uses the well-known anti-Serbia rhetoric and claims in numerous interviews that the ATP wants a Serb at the top at any cost Prevent world ranking.
“Nole” is fed up with black and white thinking – and yet she cannot swim completely free
Novak is moving away and emancipating himself from his father’s worldview, moves to Monte Carlo – also for tax reasons, of course – and visits the family in Belgrade at ever increasing intervals. His younger brothers Marko (born 1991) and Djordje (born 1995) emulate him, try their hand at tennis, but can never match the talent of their big brother and can never leave Belgrade.
Marko breaks under the pressure to achieve the same success as “Nole” and struggles with depression for years. Djordje, the youngest and least talented brother, does the same as his father and makes a name for himself as director of the “Novak Tennis Center” and the “Serbia Open” through the name of the firstborn.
During the years on the ATP tour, Novak learns that mankind is by no means as easy to divide into black and white thinking as his father taught him. Novak loves making contact with and 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, looking for a higher meaning in his life, a higher force that gives his life structure, and finds his supposed answers in a whole bunch of esoteric theories (read more on this here).
His family is not happy with his apparent departure, his father has to justify himself more and more often to his new friends of the social elite of Belgrade for why his son has turned his back on his homeland, why he does not pay his taxes well in Serbia. “Novak is the greatest Serb in history,” dictated Srdjan to the journalists who were hurriedly ordered 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 confessions, always with the old thought, the burden: “Without the effort and expense of my parents, I would not be who I am today.” He registered his newly established foundation in Belgrade, which exclusively looks after the needs of needy children in Serbia. He encourages his father to believe that Kosovo has always been and will remain a Serbian region. He puts Serbian tennis on the map of the world with the first Davis Cup success in its history, almost single-handedly.
In 2022 Novak will be “larger than life” for a long time. And that has least to do with his undisputed outstanding sporting achievements. They may have maneuvered him into this position, but they created people like his father Srdjan, the Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and the esoteric gurus who accompanied him over the years.
They all used “Nole” as a sun that warmed and nourished them. But as with the sun, which one day will stop shining on earth, the big bang threatens in this scenario too. Novak Djokovic is worn out between all the parties he is supposed to please, driven by greed for love, affection and recognition. One is actually surprised that his father, who does not shy away from comparison, has not yet discovered this worrying metaphor for himself.