The Davis Cup semifinal between Serbia and Argentina in September 2011 was the first sporting event I attended with credentials allowing behind-the-scenes access. Knowing Serbia as I do, I suspected their tennis federation’s communications representative wouldn’t care that I wasn’t a journalist but an academic visiting to do research for a project conceived just over a month before. At the time, I thought it was a one-off: a fun way to pass the time during a short stint between teaching jobs. Little did I know that this was the beginning of an adventure lasting two years (and counting) and taking me to tournaments across the US and in three other countries.
Most people reading this won’t need a reminder of the kind of 2011 Novak Djoković was having. (If you’d like to refresh your memory, Brian Phillips’ pieces about the final two matches of the Serb’s US Open run or Jon Wertheim’s nomination of him for SI’s Sportsman of the Year are good ways to do so.) He returned home, just days after winning his third Slam of the season, with an almost unthinkable 64-2 record. Though much has been written about his year, two things that sometimes get overlooked in reviews of his accomplishments are the fact that Novak wasn’t in great shape when he arrived in Belgrade and would be in even worse condition by the end of the Davis Cup weekend. During the US Open final against Nadal, he received treatment on his back and was clearly hobbled in the fourth set, serving at well below his average speeds. Add to this the mental fatigue of a long year and the physical exhaustion of jet lag (never mind the whirlwind media tour that preceded his flight from New York), and it makes sense that Djoković didn’t play in the first singles match of the tie.
But with his team down 1-2 entering the third day of competition, Nole opted to enter the fray. It was a no-win situation. On the one hand, he had to play—both because his team, the defending champions, would almost certainly lose otherwise and because his home fans expected it. On the other hand, he couldn’t really play—he simply wasn’t physically fit enough for a five-set match against one of the best players in the world. Despite this, he put up a brave fight in the first set, eventually losing to Juan Martin del Potro in a tiebreaker. While it was obvious to anyone watching closely that he wasn’t 100%, no one expected him to fall to the ground three games into the second set. Given that the DJ opted to play Goran Bregović’s rousing “Kalašnjikov” at that moment, I’m confident I wasn’t the only one in the Belgrade Arena who had no idea what had happened—perhaps, I thought, he’d merely lost his footing and would bounce back after being evaluated.
Despite the warning signs (grimaces and awkward stretches during the first set and a medical time-out before the second), Djoković’s retirement was still somehow a surprise. In his press conference after the final rubber, Janko Tipsarević noted that while he was disappointed by the loss, he had a “full heart” due to the risk his teammate had taken for them. Only later, when Novak missed six weeks of play with a torn rib muscle, was the extent of his sacrifice clear. Although he returned for the last three events of 2011, one could say that Djoković’s season really ended there, with thousands of his compatriots looking on in shock and sorrow as he was helped off court, towel over his head.
I’ve been back to Belgrade twice since that fall: for the Serbia Open in 2012 and the Davis Cup semifinal in 2013. Because the project I’m working on aims to explain something about Serbia itself (not just Serbian tennis) to non-natives, I tried to capture a bit of the city’s scenery during my frequent walks downtown. First-time visitors to Belgrade will get a history lesson by observing the architecture. The mix of styles and degrees of dilapidation make it fairly easy to identify different periods: from Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian influences to the more decadent designs of the turn of the twentieth century, from the massive slabs of Communist-era concrete to postmodern structures of glass and steel (either from the 1980s or the first decade of the new millennium). While many buildings of historic significance have been refurbished, plenty of evidence of both war and economic hardship remains.
Marked on the above map are the primary locations of the photos that follow: the temple of St. Sava (near my home-base in the Vračar district), the Arena (across the river in “New Belgrade”), Tennis Center Novak (venue for the now-defunct Serbia Open), Kalemegdan fortress, and Republic Square (the heart of the old city). Since buildings, flowers, and food were my most frequent subjects, I have no choice but to share photos of some of them. Taking far too many pictures of inanimate objects is, I think, one of the lesser-known hazards of traveling alone. Other things I’ve learned: trying to take action shots with a pocket camera is not advisable.
In the spring of 2012, my visit coincided with the run-up to a parliamentary election, so I was able to observe that process in various ways—by watching tv, reading the local papers, and documenting political speech in public spaces, from graffiti to official campaign posters. Soon, I’ll offer more analysis of the intersection of sports and politics in Serbia. For now, suffice it to say that there were rumors that then-president Boris Tadić had deliberately called the election to coincide with the final day of the Serbia Open, so he could be photographed handing the trophy to the most popular person in the country. As it turned out, Nole pulled out of his home tournament, due in large part to the death of his grandfather some ten days earlier—and Tadić lost the election (though I’m sure there’s no causal relationship between these two events).
In the fall of 2013, Serbian media covering Davis Cup were focused on three stories. The most sensational of these concerned Viktor Troicki, who, because he is serving an eighteen-month suspension for an ITF anti-doping rule violation, was not allowed to attend the tie. Contrary to comments from the understandably emotional Troicki and his loyal team members, there was nothing out of the ordinary—and certainly nothing personal— about this prohibition. He was not being treated like a “terrorist” or “murderer,” per Djoković’s hyperbole, but like a suspended player. The second story centered on members of the visiting team: three Canadians have strong ties to the former Yugoslavia, with Daniel Nestor and Miloš Raonić born in the region. Needless to say, the locals were particularly interested in what the guests made of their one-time home, whether they speak the language, and which elements of the cuisine they enjoy. The third story was really a question: how would Novak rebound from losing in the US Open final earlier in the week? It was partially answered by his straight-set handling of Vasek Pospisil on the tie’s opening night. As in 2010, the Serbs came from behind to win the semifinal, with Tipsarević once again scoring the decisive point. But unlike 2011, the team’s top player got through the weekend unscathed.
(Most of the images marked with asterisks are the work of Srdjan Stevanović.)