Why Novak Djoković Matters

This piece from August 2011 is the first thing I ever wrote about tennis—and it’s not even about tennis in the traditional sense.  It was addressed, initially, to a broad American audience, not necessarily tennis fans.  However, as I hope is obvious, the message is meant for anyone without ties to the former Yugoslavia.  What inspired me to post it today is Steve Tignor’s discussion of what distinguishes the fans of tennis’s “Big Three.”  Specifically, I wanted to add a few words about why Djoković’s “strong Serbian following” consists of lots of people who are either relatively new to tennis or not fans of the sport at all.  If, after reading this, you care to hear more on the subject, check out the initial post on this site or the article I wrote for the Tennis Space on what turns out to have been the last Serbia Open.

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Picture this: you’re flipping channels after midnight on a Tuesday.  Suddenly, you come across Jay Leno and Katie Holmes dancing a little jig with a bunch of people in funny outfits.  You pause, bemused.  What are they doing—and who’s that with them?

I can imagine the Tonight Show producers were thinking a couple of things when lining Novak Djoković up for an early August guest spot.  First, it’s the dog days of summer, so viewers will be happy not to be watching a re-run.  Second, Djoković is an attractive, charismatic guy who happens to be having an incredible year, winning his first Wimbledon title and achieving his goal of becoming the #1 men’s tennis player in the world in the same July weekend.

But let’s face it, Djoković still may not pass the “who cares?” threshold for most of Leno’s audience.  Sure, he’s an international sports star on a record-breaking run, but since when do Americans give a damn about tennis players—and foreign ones, with hard-to-pronounce names, at that?  Andy Roddick, the closest thing U.S. men’s tennis has to a household name, recently tweeted after a guy serving him in Panera innocently inquired, “Does someone in your group work for Lacoste?”

So, as a guest on Leno, Nole (pronounced “Noh-leh”), as he is known to friends & fans, faced a hurdle.  Add to the basic one—the marginal status of tennis in the US sports & entertainment industry—the fact that Djoković hails from Serbia.  The obstacle here isn’t simply that most Americans don’t know anything about this small, south-eastern European nation.  It’s that what they do know is likely extremely negative—based on nearly two decades in which Serbia, or the former Yugoslavia to which it once belonged, was associated with little more than ethnic conflict, war, and political corruption.  Before Djoković, the three most “famous” Serbs were strongman Slobodan Milošević and Bosnian Serb leaders Radovan Karadžić and Ratko Mladić (all three of whom ended up in the UN’s war crimes tribunal in the Hague)—not exactly the type of guys who get invited onto the Tonight Show.

Djoković matters—not simply to Leno’s viewers but in a larger sense—for three reasons.  This year, he’s a been a major story, both on the men’s tennis tour (where his record now stands at a remarkable 61-2) and in the world of sports more generally: a May Sports Illustrated cover banner proclaimed him the “most dominant athlete in the world.”  He’s also a big deal because he’s the first player to break the duopoly that Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have had on the #1 spot for an incredible seven years.  In the long run, of course, it remains to be seen what kind of name Djoković will make for himself—or where he will rank in the history of men’s tennis.  For now, though, he’s on top—and showing little sign of letting up.

Ultimately, Djoković may matter most not as a tennis player but as a cultural figure: a global ambassador for a young nation with a lot to prove.  Serbia has only existed in its current form, as an independent country, since 2006—not incidentally, the same year a nineteen-year-old Djoković broke into the ATP top 20.  In the five subsequent years, Djoković (and, to a lesser degree, his 2010 championship Davis Cup teammates, all of whom were granted diplomatic passports in April) has quickly become Serbia’s top export and most reliable salesman.  While he normally represents his nation in Olympic and Davis Cup competition, you can now add late-night television to his list of venues.  There, he not only talked to Leno about tennis and his love for karaoke but also brought along a troupe of costumed Serbian folk dancers—with whom he proceeded to dance a traditional kolo (or “round”).  “The Djoker” even managed to charm both his host and Tom Cruise’s wife into joining him on the dance floor.  If nothing else, these moves should make it clear that there’s a lot more at stake here than selling a bunch of “Novak” t-shirts or US Open tickets to American consumers.

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