- William Nattrass
- 26 January 2023, 3:04pm
Novak Djokovic is no stranger to controversy. A year ago, the Serbian tennis star was deported from Australia after failing to comply with the country’s covid vaccination rules. Organisers of the Australian Open are once again fighting fires relating to Djokovic.
This time, it is Djokovic’s father, Srdjan, who is in trouble after he posed with supporters of Russian president Vladimir Putin outside the Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne. Djokovic senior was pictured with a man holding a Russian flag emblazoned with Putin’s face, and wearing a T-shirt printed with the pro-war Z symbol. In a video recording of the incident, Srdjan appears to say ‘Long live the Russians’. The Aussie Cossack YouTube channel, where the clip first appeared, is run by Simeon Boikov, a pro-Russian activist, who is accused of assaulting a man at a Ukraine rally in Sydney last month.
After the clip was filmed, four fans were evicted by police after chanting pro-Russia and pro-Putin slogans. The ugly scenes unfolded on Wednesday night after Djokovic had just beaten Russia’s Andrey Rublev in straight sets to reach the semi finals.
Staging the demonstration at a match between a Serb and a Russian was no coincidence: it was likely to have been motivated by the sense of brotherhood that continues to unite many from those two countries in support of the war in Ukraine.
Thousands of people took to the streets of Serbia’s capital Belgrade in support of Russia last March, just days after Putin’s invasion. Moscow is seen by many Serbs as a truer ally than the West will ever be. This is due in large part to Russia’s support for Serbia’s claims on Kosovo and Serbs’ undying resentment against western intervention during the Balkan wars in the 1990s.
The actions of Djokovic’s father say nothing, of course, about the political beliefs of his son. But Serbia’s greatest sportsman will, like all Serbs, be used to a domestic political culture which paradoxically portrays Serbia as the victim of a domineering West, while simultaneously hungering for the economic benefits which membership of the West can bring.
Serbian coverage of the scandal playing out Down Under has reflected this sense of victimhood. Local media in Belgrade is portraying western outrage about the incident in Melbourne as an attempt to throw Djokovic off course as he pursues another Grand Slam. One of the most popular Serbian tabloids called the fallout a ‘new attack on Novak,’ claiming that ‘instead of talking about Novak’s perfect slam so far, media in Australia and Europe are unfortunately writing about the ‘scandal’ and calling on the Australian Open to react.’ The paper goes on to complain that ‘what is bad about the whole situation is that it creates unnecessary tension and pressure for Novak.’
Controversies surrounding Djokovic in recent years have made him a perfect focus for Serbian paranoia. Djokovic’s treatment in Australia last year over his covid vaccine stance generated plenty of sympathy in his homeland. Upon his return home after that ordeal, strongman president Aleksandar Vučić fêted him as a hero.