Serbia unites to offer cheer to stricken tennis hero Novak Djokovic

Player’s attitude to pandemic has done little to harm his following across the Balkans

Novak Djokovic can count on one thing during his involuntary stay in a Melbourne asylum detention centre: rock-solid support from his fans back home in Serbia.

As the country celebrated Orthodox Christmas on Friday, Serbians were united behind the world number one in men's tennis – and well-known coronavirus vaccine sceptic – whose participation in the Australian Open is in doubt after authorities there revoked his entry visa after he landed.

Djokovic, who has been critical of vaccinations and restrictions amid the pandemic, has refused to disclose his vaccination status to authorities. He had been relying on a medical exemption to get into Australia, where he hoped to get a record 21st "grand slam" title and his 10th Australian trophy.

Belgrade’s foreign ministry has complained that Djokovic was a victim of a “political game” and charged that he had been “lured to travel to Australia in order to be humiliated”.

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It urged that the star be allowed to spend Christmas in better accommodation – a dig at Melbourne’s Park Hotel, where Djokovic has been housed in quarantine quarters alongside refugees, some who have been detained for years.

There was “understandable indignation of his fans and citizens of Serbia”, the foreign ministry said.

The Serbian Orthodox Church also weighed in. Its Patriarch Porfirije said he had spoken with Djokovic, reassuring him of his support.

Criticising vaccinations

“Dear Novak, from the troubles and temptations you are going through on Christmas, the day of joy, tomorrow only a pale shadow will remain,” Porfirije wrote on Instagram. “Millions of Orthodox Serbs pray for you, as you do for us.”

Djokovic has been close to the Orthodox church, which bestowed upon him its highest honour, the order of St Sava, in 2011 for his help for monasteries, especially in Kosovo.

Besides criticising mandatory vaccinations and restrictions Djokovic (34) also defied pandemic rules and organised a series of exhibition tennis events, dubbed the Adria Tour, at the height of the pandemic’s first wave in 2020, which helped spread infections. He and his wife caught the virus.

His attitude to the pandemic has done little to harm his following across the Balkans, where vaccine scepticism is rampant and inoculation rates are consistently well below the European average.

In Serbia, less than half of the population has received a first dose of a vaccine, compared to more than 70 per cent in the European Union, according to Financial Times data. The coronavirus has been deadlier in the Balkans than in Europe as a whole, with Serbia recording several times as many deaths per capita as the EU for most of the autumn.

With just three months to go until Serbian elections, political leaders expressed support for Djokovic, whose role is widely seen as a benchmark of national unity.

"I've just finished my telephone conversation with Novak Djokovic," Serbian president Aleksandar Vucic posted on Instagram last week.

‘Harassment’

“I told our Novak that the whole of Serbia is with him and that our authorities are doing everything to see that the harassment of the world’s best tennis player is brought to an end immediately.”

Former premier Ivica Dacic, the leader of the ruling coalition Socialist party, said Djokovic "did not invite himself, they granted him the so-called exemption," Mr Dacic told TV Pink, recalling a similar exemption he had to get to allow entry to the Glasgow climate summit with his Russian vaccines.

Calling Djokovic’s treatment “shameful”, Mr Dacic said in Australia “politics is unstable because everyone is chasing ratings . . . leading to political abuse”.

Djokovic’s family led a small protest outside the country’s parliament last week, where a few hundred people draped themselves in national flags to express solidarity with the tennis star. His father Srdjan Djokovic said his son was the symbol of a “free world”.

“Shame on them, the entire freedom-loving world should rise together with Serbia,” Srdjan Djokovic said. “They crucified Jesus and now they are trying to crucify Novak the same way and force him on his knees.”

– Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022